Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Mouse is Greater than the Wall

Book: The Greatest of All: A Japanese Folktale by Eric Kimmel, Illustrated by Giora Carmi
Puppets: none
Props: Headband, ears or similar for: Mice (3), Emperor, Sun, Cloud, Wind; Cardboard bricks or Wall.
Presenters: three, but works okay with two
Audience: K-2 Book Adventures

We acted out this Japanese folktale for our “Around the World Tales” program in our K-2 Book Adventures series. This is one that really works well with child volunteers, because they have enough to do so that they really do take part, but not so much to do that they can derail the story if things don’t go smoothly. In the story, Father Mouse searches for the “greatest of all” to marry his daughter, who wants to marry a regular field mouse. We used kids with simple props and lines to play the Field Mouse (mouse ears), Emperor (crown), Sun, Cloud, and Wind (paper headbands with picture on front). Each of these characters seems mighty, but then each admits that there is another greater than themselves, so their lines were pretty much the same: “I am not the greatest of all” (says Cloud, for example); “Wind is greater than me.” So as Father Mouse I could repeat and explain: “Oh I see what you mean. Whenz the Wind blows, even Cloud must move aside.” Or, as we wound up doing it, Father Mouse can be baffled (“What do you mean?”) and Daughter Mouse (played by Terri) is the sensible one who explains it to Father. This pattern continues with each character; the only variation is that before leaving Cloud, Father Mouse notices that he looks a little dark and is he going to rain? And Cloud says yes and squirts the audience, following that age old rule that says “if you have an opportunity to squirt your audience, by all means do so.” I don’t think I learned that in library school, but soon after that, and it has proven true in all cases over the years.
We had Brad play the Wall, using a big 4’ x 6’ cardboard wall (decorated with sponges by Terri) with holes for his arms to poke through. His appearance was a good surprise for the audience. At this point, they’re following the pattern, not quite sure where it’s ending (I hope), and ready for a goofy visual surprise. Wall explains why he’s not the mightiest and talks about the small creature who gnaws little holes in him and will eventually cause him to fall. And just before Wall’s appearance, Brad has secretly got the Field Mouse, who appeared briefly in the beginning, behind the cardboard so the audience doesn't know he's back there too. When Father Mouse says “who is this mighty creature who can devour a wall” (or words to that effect), the volunteer pops his mouse-eared head through the the little pre-cut pop-out window. A very nice effect, I thought.

The story could be done with one person and child volunteers, but having at least one more for Wall is better, since Wall needs to explain more than the others and kind of build up the anticipation. And three people makes it even better, because there can be some fun interplay between Daughter and Father, accentuating Father’s silliness and Daughter’s good sense. Extra people is nice for the performance, but also for developing the story beforehand. I really appreciated working with Terri as we planned it out. I had done it many times before and would have just done it my same old way, but her fresh eyes saw the visual potential for a big old wall and that was a great addition; and together we tossed around ideas for how to make Field Mouse’s appearance have the best impact and came up with a good one.

Side note: Besides being an excellent collaborator and storyteller, Terri’s doing a cool thing that’s totally unrelated but I’ll mention it here because I’m just so impressed: Right now she’s on her third day of ten on a bike trip where she’s following the last 400 miles of the Lewis & Clark Trail. If you’re interested, check out her blog at:

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