2020 TRUE WEST AWARD: THOSE ROTTEN KIDS OF 'SHOCKHEADED PETER'

True West Awards Shockheaded Peter

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'It almost makes me cry to tell, what foolish Harriet befell.'

– Author Heinrich Hoffmann, 'Shockheaded Peter'

By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist

So, right off the top: When we say, “Suffer the little children,” the tone we're going for is more the Stephen King horror story than the gentle words of Jesus.

True West Awards. Elias Christol in Shockheaded Peter. Photo by Michael Ensminger The Catamounts’ "Shockheaded Peter" was an immersive, multi-generational punk opera loosely based on a German children’s book of poems where … oh, how shall I say it? … bad things happen to children who misbehave. Like the adorable young lass who plays with matches and accidentally burns herself to death.

Some, I’m told, are put off by grim fairy tales that depict children in peril. I dunno. When I see rotten kids being starved, burned, de-thumbed and eaten by dogs, I say: “Pass the popcorn!”

(And if that makes you indignant to read that, consider the bloody, chopped-off feet of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters. Kids getting baked (and not in the fun way) in “Hansel and Gretel.” The delectable fate of all those brats in Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Or, heck: The Seven Deadly Sins. Talk about consequences!)

Love it or abhor it, the kids’ cautionary canon has been steeped in mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest since at least the 1300s, when a great famine struck Europe and lore emerged saying that mothers abandoned their children – and in some cases, ate them.

Let's be honest: Tormenting animals, sucking your thumb or fidgeting at meals should come with gruesome consequences, don't you think? I learned that when I ungratefully refused to eat my mother's yucky corned beef and cabbage one Halloween night and wasn’t allowed to trick-or-treat. I’m lucky she didn't sew my mouth shut.

These classic stories survive and thrive (typically in far more sanitized fashion for these precious times) because there tend to be clear morals and lessons to be drawn from them. Deception and dishonesty will be punished. Promises must be honored. And do we even have to say it, kiddos? Beware of strangers – especially in the forest!

Dark, fatal tales are a great way to keep the wee ones in line. But as the writer Stephen Evans smartly noted of the Brothers Grimm: “Moralistic lectures never entertained anyone – but gory tales of suspense are a different thing.”

“Shockheaded Peter” (translation: "Slovenly Peter") is a delightfully macabre adaptation of Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845 children’s book “Der Struwwelpeter: Fearful Stories and Vile Pictures to Instruct Good Little Folks.” It opened to great acclaim in London in 1998 – set to music by the cult British musical trio The Tiger Lillies.

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As a parent herself, “Shockheaded Peter’s” sly cautionary tales appealed to Boulder tastemaker Amanda Berg Wilson’s sense of parental anxiety. She calls such yarns a parent’s first line of defense.

True West Awards. Eloise Wilson in Shockheaded Peter. Photo by Michael Ensminger “I fell in love with this story from the point of view of a parent,” Berg Wilson said. “Parenting is terrifying all by itself – especially when we try to let children be their own strange, independent selves.

“When you become a parent, it’s like, ‘I am in charge of keeping this person alive for the next 18 years?’ I thought it would be cathartic for us parents to see a show that examines how terrifying parenting can be. I wanted it to hit viscerally.”

While the original production relied solely on puppets to depict the doomed tykes, Berg Wilson expanded on that conceit by by putting five actual, lovely precious young humans in harm’s way (including one of her own!). That choice made the musical more deliciously fun. And not just for the audience.

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The fully engaged and invested youth ensemble of Lily Gruber (14), Luca Fowler (13), Eloise Wilson (she turned 12 on opening night), Elias Christol (9) and Macaelle Vasquez (8) were clearly having the time of their lives portraying children who often lose theirs. As Erica Reid wrote for “Go West Young Woman”: 

“Every actor, regardless of age, has a great deal of fun with their gruesome material. But possibly the most dedicated of all the performers are the young children. For example, Luca Fowler busts out breakdancing moves as Fidgety Phil; Lily Gruber as a downright devious, pint-sized pyro; and 9-year-old Elias Christol flat-out stares you down as he kicks boxes at you as Cruel Frederick.”

Berg Wilson saw the use of real flesh and blood as a way of expanding the emotional reach and impact of the original puppet musical. Staging it in the Dairy Arts Center’s smallest theatre put about 40 mobile audience members inside and around the elaborate and evocative attic set, right in the middle of the dusty gore.

“I thought, 'This is a show about kids, so what if we use real kids?’ ” Berg Wilson said. “How would it change the experience for the audience to have all these children die – theatrically speaking – right in front of us?”

From Day 1, the kids were treated the same as an appetizing adult ensemble led by lithe and lethal emcee Lance Rasmussen. They were paid professional stipends for their work. They fully participated with the adults in Viewpoints exercises – that’s an advanced technique that encourages actors to focus less on their characters’ psychology and more on observation and movement. (And if you fully understand what that means, you’re one step ahead of me.) There was no “child wrangler” (a theatrical term essentially meaning babysitter for young cast members.) Parents were not allowed in the rehearsals.

They had no issues dealing with the graphic content, Berg Wilson said. "They knew it was pretend. But they're kids, after all. One of them was a total pro, but she was scared of the dark, which is so understandable. She wasn't bothered by anything on stage, but we always had one of the kids wait with her holding her hand in the dark for all of her entrances.It was adorable.

Otherwise? Killer kids.

“We treated them like professionals, and they delivered,” Berg Wilson said. “I have a really strong philosophy that if you have expectations of children that are robust, they will rise to it.”

And fall. Six feet under.

True West Awards. Shockheaded Peter. Photo by Michael Ensminger

The Catamounts' 'Shockheaded Peter.' Puppetry by D. Tristan Cupp and Aaron Vega. Photo by Michael Ensminger.

'Shockheaded Peter' cast:

  • Todd Bilsbourough
  • Joan Bruemmer-Holden
  • James Brunt
  • Elias Christol
  • Tresha Farris
  • Luca Fowler
  • Paul Fowler
  • Kellie Fox
  • Lily Gruber
  • Matt Powelson
  • Lance Rasmussen
  • Maggie Tisdale
  • Macaelle Vasquez
  • Ronan Viard
  • Eloise Wilson

Creatives:

  • Created for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott
  • Original music and lyrics by The Tiger Lillies
  • Originally conceived and produced by Michael Morris for Cultural Industry, London
  • Direction by Amanda Berg Wilson
  • Music Direction by Paul Fowler
  • Choreography by Amanda Berg Wilson and Joan Bruemmer-Holden
  • Costume Design by Nicole Watts
  • Production by McPherson Horle
  • Production Support by Peter Henderson
  • Production Design by Matthew Schlief
  • Puppet Design and Fabrication by Tristan Cupp and Aaron Vega
  • Stage Management by Wayner Breyer
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