‘The Suitcase’ (‘Der Koffer’) Adaptation from Picture book to the Stage
The Theater Im Marienbad
The theatre is a converted 19th century swimming pool in a leafy street near the river. Like the city itself, Theatre Im Marienbad is a friendly and welcoming place. It’s very well-equipped and maintained by a dedicated team, putting on shows in two separate performance spaces, mainly for young people and schoolchildren.
I went to a Sunday afternoon performance, along with many families with small children in attendance. As it was the first time the theatre had invited such a young audience, Bernhard Ott of the theatre’s technical team had constructed tailor-made seating especially for it – long, low, padded benches (even taking their colour from the stranger in the book), to allow young children to spread out, move around and feel unconfined during the performance.
As soon as it began, I knew that it was going to be very special. The Fox, Rabbit, and Bird (played by Lisa Bräuniger, Daniela Mohr, and Christoph Müller) appeared, disappeared, and re-appeared from behind suspended white curtains around the stage, wandering, stalking, tiptoeing, playing with props and establishing what sort of a character each of them might be.
Then, the Stranger finally appeared (played by Julia-Sofia Schulze), pushing across the floor a battered old suitcase that appeared to weigh several tons. After a complex, choreographed passage of the characters and the case across the stage, the dialogue began, and the story started.
The audience were engrossed in the actors’ wonderful performances. Younger members sometimes commented on the action or laughed at the animals’occasional silliness. Later in the story, the opening of the suitcase had been transformed from what is an unseen moment in the book to a longer, increasingly frantic and uncontrollable act of collective violence that results in the poor old piece of luggage and its contents lying smashed and trampled on the floor. In fact, the run of shows required a stock of over forty old cases, one for each performance. In the theatre, the moment brought an enthralled and uneasy silence, as the animals and audience absorbed what had been done, and realised there was no way that it could be undone. I realised I’d been holding my breath for the last thirty seconds of the scene.
The Costume Design
Designed by Emily Bourley, the costumes brought out each characters’ personality and appearance whilst avoiding the actors having to wear cartoon-like animal costumes. They were dressed in human clothes with quirks and personalities of their own that, along with the actors’ mannerisms, implied each characters’ species and were an integral part of the actors’ performances.
Simon Ho’s compositions was evocative and beautiful. As they were cued from on-stage dialogue or action, the short pieces he’d written were used in randomised order. From performance to performance the actors could never know exactly which musical mood and atmosphere would accompany a scene.
Unpacking ‘The Suitcase’ for the Stage: Commentary from the team behind the Production:
Antonia Brix, Director/Dramaturge:
When I asked about the production, I was immediately curious about this book that the actors had discovered. These are the best prerequisites for developing a play as a team.
When I had a copy of it in my hands I was thrilled by the well-constructed plot, the concentration on the essentials and the emptiness that offers a lot of freedom of association. ‘The Suitcase’is an impressive and touching parable about being a stranger, about fears and friendship, destruction, making mistakes and making amends for them, and thus, of course, a highly topical subject.
Our big question at the beginning was whether we would succeed in transferring the freedom of association to the stage or whether we would get too involved in interpretation and lose the power of the book.
First, the whole team looked at and discussed the book page by page for three days. What happens between the pages? Is the damage, the violation of opening the suitcase, worse for the creature than his broken cup? Is it important for the audience to recognize the animals? Our costume designer, Emily Bourley, suggested creating the effect of recognition through the costume colours.
In the implementation, the animal characters were the starting point to develop quirky, surprising stage characters. Like the book, they are displayed on an empty stage, as if on a tableau. Over many improvisations, and always accompanied by Simon Ho’s music for the production, we developed scenes. For example: how do you open a suitcase like that when you have no idea how it works? During this phase, we were very much immersed in our own world, we laughed a lot, but we were also challenged again and again to endure the pain and uncertainty of “not knowing what to do next” in the scenes – in other words, not to have solutions at hand right away.
It was an intense and enriching time for all of us!
Sonja Karadza, Artistic director:
During a research tour through the wonderful children’s and youth bookshop Fundevogel, our four actors came across Chris Naylor-Ballesteros’ book ‘The Suitcase’. The next day they happily brought it to our session, and it turned out that they all wanted to do the book as a solo piece. The joy had the following background: In the past, our theatre didn’t make plays for the very young. We couldn’t find the right text and certainly not the right form to do justice to the artistic demands of the theatre.With this children’s book it was different, so much depth and complexity in such a simple story. We quickly decided it should not be a one-person show, but a large ensemble piece.
Who should direct it? We thought of Antonia Brix, a master in tracing and teasing out the complex in the seemingly simple and in taking her time and not overloading the situations. Two days before Christmas I called Antonia, and she picked up the book the same day in an equally great Munich bookshop and was immediately thrilled. Our Christmas Eve present: Antonia’s acceptance!
And not only that, Simon Ho, a virtuoso in composing stage music, agreed to work with us once again. A spontaneous idea had turned into a real project. Our technical director, Bernhard Ott, designed a wonderful atmospheric space, with a big surprise at the end that showed his passion for lovingly small details, a new home for the creature in all its details. Our event technician Emily Bourley designed enchanting costumes for it.
And if we were going to be bold enough to finally make a piece of work for this age group, then we also wanted to try out something else that was new, something for which this production lent itself very well. Our idea was to work with sign language on stage. Not as a translation service alongside what is happening on stage, but really integrated into the production by the actors. With wonderful help from Angelika Moser and critical guidance from Matthias Hanel, this attempt could bear fruit and become a small contribution to more inclusion in our theatre.
And then we had the great fortune of having the author come to visit, watch the play, and have dinner with us. You couldn’t wish for a better ending than this family Sunday and Chris’ presence.