IN CONVERSATION | Dan Giovannoni | Writer of The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker

Interview | Laura Money

Dan Giovannoni is a writer and collaborator with Barking Gecko Theatre, he has brought us classics such as Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories and HOUSE. Giovannoni’s latest project – another collaboration with Barking Gecko Artistic Director Luke Kerridge, is The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker – an enduring tale of adventure and discovery. We caught up with Dan ahead of the show to find out what it’s all about.

Laura Money (LM): Why this incredibly long title, The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker? I love it!

Dan Giovannoni (DG): I guess one of the things that we wanted to do – the show is drawing off of a lot from us (the makers) with references to our childhoods, including the poetic images and ideas from The Little Prince and other eighties cartoons like SheRa and eighties adventure films like Labyrinth and The Princess Bride – so we wanted a title that gave us a sense of adventure and of the epic kind of adventure that our protagonist goes on. So the title came bout from trying to embed this sense of the epic nature of the quest that he has to go on.

LM: It is reminiscent of those epic adventure books and films of people’s childhoods and really does give a thrill up your spine.

DG: Yeah, and for us as makers we were trying to pull in the things that were the foundations of our own kind of wondering and sense of imagination – this was the place we found our creativity and did our imagining and I found that interesting.

LM: Well, you’ve been very imaginative in your other projects so far – what was your first foray into Barking Gecko Theatre?

DG: Luke [Kerridge] and I worked together first on Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories in 2015/6 maybe? We were actually working on that before he took the job at Barking Gecko and we were invited by Barking Gecko Theatre to come and make the show with them. And these other two projects, HOUSE and Wilbur were projects that Luke and I had been working on in our own time, just bubbling away for a while, and when he got the job at Barking Gecko we were able to realise them in quite an extraordinary way.

It’s such a thrill you know to be able to really take someone on an adventure in a flying house or into outer space, it’s such a gift as theatre artists and for our supporters.

LM: It sounds like you’ve found the perfect fit, Barking Gecko was the right place for these shows to go.

DG: I think so, I mean, Barking Gecko makes work that takes their audience seriously, sometimes work for kids can be a bit, maybe not derided but I think um, it’s great to be with a company that is dedicated to its audience – who understand their audience and want to bring their audience on a journey with them. 

LM: With that in mind, how do you approach a work written for children? Do you write it for children or like it’s for everyone?

DG: We are trying to make work that is primarily for families, that means that we’re expecting intergenerational audiences and it’s the sort of show that I think really benefits from a conversation in the car on the way home – so grandparents could chat with grandchildren, have a great time at the theatre and then have big conversations about creativity and loneliness and growing up. I don’t really sit down and say ok, there’s stuff I can’t say because it’s for kids, my job is to find a way to say what I want to say for kids.

You know children experience the same spectrum of emotion that grown-ups do – it’s not like they’re these magical other creatures and so all of the things that affect me as an adult were the same things that affected me as a child and affect other children and that really stays with me as I sit down to write. Obviously I want to inject it with a sense of fun and adventure and hope. I think the only thing I really feel is I have an obligation as an artist to present, to offer hope.

LM: I think that’s really important and it certainly shines through in both Bambert’s and HOUSE, how does that sense of hope come through in Wilbur?

DG: It comes through in the sense that it’s a show about the importance and necessity of wonder, of imagination and creativity and dreaming, and those things in a capitalist society. [They are] routinely disregarded and devalued by the grown up world. I think creativity and imagination are considered the domain of flights of fancy and they’re not serious or sensible. And they are, ironically the things young people are going to need if they’re going to tackle the problems they will encounter as grown ups. The world is a pretty wild place, and I think stepping out into the world even if it wasn’t as wild as it is, it’s pretty daunting.

For Wilbur, we have a 41 year old man as the protagonist of this show,  um so he’s not a kid, and so he’s been on a really big journey already through his life and the glimmer of hope offered to him is a gift to our adult audience but also an invitation to the kids to hold onto their wonder, to hold onto their creativity, their dreaming and their imagination because everything sort of comes and goes but in our world – the world that we’re building – wonder is something that is in everything. There’s wonder to be found in space, there’s wonder to be found in milkshakes, there’s wonder to be found in creatures that talk and those are the things that will fuel you in your life, so that’s sort of the hopeful nugget that we want the audience – kids and grown ups – to take away from it. 

LM: I think that’s fantastic, and I’m sure they will – how much of you is in the character of Wilbur? Did you lose your sense of wonder and came back to it or have you always retained it writing for theatre?

DG: Well it’s funny, we’ve been working on this show for maybe on or off for 5 or 6 years, and a lot of the more fantastical elements – the kooky characters and the adventure part came quite easily, with my imagination just sort of running wild but the character, to be honest, took a little longer to land and draft after draft I’d send it to Luke and I didn’t really quite know who Wilbur was and it was in between like draft 5 and 6 that it came – a large chunk of it came in lockdown, I live in Melbourne and I realized that yeah, I sort of had become a bit of a Wilbur myself and I’d lost my adventurous spirit and I’d lost my sense of wonder. 

I had to go on a pretty personal quest of my own to refind it but through the writing, through this character kind of constantly asking me to look into what he needed, I was able to work out what I needed too. Definitely there’s a lot of me in Wilbur, there’s a lot of Luke in Wilbur. Both Luke and I have worked for many years with young people and we’ve observed their creative spirit and sense of play and imagination and I’ve often watched that diminish as they get older – a lot of kids have spoken quite eloquently about their own parents losing their imaginations and their sense of play so all of that played into Wilbur too, the knowledge that kids see how the adult world works through their parents, their teachers, other grown ups in their lives who struggle to maintain their sense of wonder and then they distribute that knowledge to other young people. 

LM: When you approach a piece of theatre as opposed to just writing a short story or whatever it is, how much do you have staging and directing and sound design or costuming in mind? Or do you just let them take it and run with it?

DG: Look it’s a bit of both. Our collaboration on Bambert and again on Wilbur is with the amazing designer, Jonathan Oxlade who has built the world for both of those shows and that conversation with Jonathan, you know he’s in the room right from the beginning of the process so there’s a part of me that is conscious of how we’re going to do it but really the invitation from Jonathan and Luke is go wild. We’ll build the thing and we’ll work out a way to realise it. They never turn around and say you can’t do that – they might ask ‘why do you want to do that?’ and ‘what’s a different way that we can realise it?’ but we’re more interested in making theatre, it would defeat the purpose if you can just ‘CGI’ everything – especially with a story like this which goes right through outer space into all these kooky, crazy worlds so we’re always trying to find a theatrical solution to the ideas that we want to explore. So, yeah I’m thinking about it sometimes but I mean, certainly I didn’t ever think that we’d be able to achieve some of the amazing images that we’re going to be able to in Wilbur when I was sitting down to write it. 

LM: That’s the great thing about theatre, isn’t it? It’s wondrous in itself and it takes the brains of everybody’s specific talents and when you put them all together it creates something so unique that you don’t see anywhere else.

DG: Yeah, it’s amazing and I think the creative team are all probably within ten years of age of each other so I think that we’re drawing on our references, it’s a shared reference – you know the same eighties adventure movies, everyone is transported back to that time when they were a child and they know what that sounds like, and looks like, and feels like.

LM: So just when you hear some of that music does it take you straight back to being a kid and watching those movies?

DG: Yeah, totally! We have this wonderful character who is sort of, she’s not inspired by but certainly is in the legacy of a character like SheRa and she has a really sick anthem, her superhero anthem that plays – I caught a snippet of it the other day in the rehearsal room and it just transports you immediately. 

LM: Obviously you’ve been drawing on that particular era – the movies, books and shows that endured are usually the ones that have stood the test of time in terms of intersectionality and strong female characters – do you think that you’ve built on that legacy? Or do you include it in a way that it’s normalised?

DG: It’s always a conscious decision, I think anything we put on stage you have to be conscious of otherwise you’re doing yourself and the audience a disservice. So, we’re definitely talking about those things and the kind of characters that we want to put on stage, the kind of messages that we want them to be sharing and the ideas that we want them to represent. We want what goes on stage not only to reflect the world that we are in, but also offer them a future. You should be able to look at what’s happening on stage and go, either that is me or that’s for me or I’m going to grow into that world. 

LM: It sounds like the approach of using a family story is a very smart move because some of these adult quest movies such as Hector and the Search For Happiness, are very much from the legacy of like Jack Kerouac – single man goes on journey has affairs and finds himself – it’s a very narrow narrative. I love that you’re revelling in this idea of wonder and how children aren’t corrupt. At what point did we become this cynical product of our culture?

DG: There is a conversation in the work about growing up and yes, Wilbur is a grown up but his – she isn’t a sidekick but his co-journeyer is Princess Fantastic who is six and a half thousand years old but she has the spirit of a ten year old and that has allowed us to crack open that conversation about growing up and at what point do you let stuff go and why does that happen, and how do you get it back, it’s a really important part of our entry point into the work. Luke came to me with this idea after having this kind of passion of kids having their creativity and their imagination gently squashed by the world as they get older. So it’s embedded right at the core of the story, the relationship between childhood and adulthood.

And so even though we have a grown up protagonist, it’s much more about the balance, because you have to grow up, you can’t remain a child forever, that’s preposterous and there are heaps of great things about being a grown up – there are heaps of great things about being a child and I think that our society has carved the two apart. We’re sort of positing that there’s another way. We’re reconsidering the connection between grown ups and kids.

LM: That’s so interesting because we do so much in that space between, a lot of identity building. I find that a lot of my personality is the same as it was at ten years old but I lost it and had to come back to it. 

DG: Yeah, and I think that’s a common story, you know I think the last two years have brought that home for a lot of adults they’re like, wow this machine that I was part of has ground to a halt and when it all stopped people looked back and went, hang on a second do I want to get back on? 

LM: Apart from seeing this show, The Great Un Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker, what advice would you give to adults to bring back a sense of wonder into their lives?

DG: That’s a great question! The way that our protagonist discovers his sense of wonder – part of it is about recalling childhood and thinking about who he was once, but more importantly I guess it’s about – it’s a tricky thing I think to do as a grown up – trying to investigate your inner space. There’s a metaphor in this work about inner space and outer space and the galaxies that you have inside your heart and that you are a full and rich person inside. If you can tap into even just a glimmer of that then you’re off – the journey begins.

The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker starts at The State Theatre Centre WA from 9th -16th April 2022. TICKETS

The Fourth Wall acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land we engage in storytelling on – the Wadjhuk people of the Noongar nation. We pay respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

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