Ask anyone with small children about the prolific author Mo Willems and they’ll start gushing about how much they adore his children’s books. Among the favorites: “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” which urges readers not to allow a bird behind the wheel; “Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct”; and “Knuffle Bunny,” about a father who doesn’t understand why his toddler is wailing. (His wife knows instantly: Trixie has misplaced her favorite fuzzy companion.)
That last title was the first book Willems, 45, adapted for the stage, a well-received show produced with the Kennedy Center in 2011. Willems is working with the theater once again, this time on “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” which follows a couple of unlikely friends who don’t always see eye to eye.
Willems, is (sort of) taking time off and living in Paris with wife Cheryl and young daughter Trixie. He spoke recently from Paris about transforming a book into a play, drawing inspiration from absurdist theater and how he manages to appeal to both kids and parents.
I took my niece to “Knuffle Bunny” and we had a great time, so I’m excited you and the Kennedy Center are going for another round.
I enjoyed “Knuffle Bunny,” but this one I’m super triple excited about. I like Elephant and Piggie. They’re fun to be with, and I think I learned a lot from the last one. . . . [This play] is purposely less demanding in terms of technology, with the projections and all that. This is a much simpler, more vaudevillian piece, so I’m enjoying that. Instead of having all this technology that took up space, it allows us to have a live band onstage, which I think is really awesome.
Parents seem to have a soft spot for your books even though the target audience is kids. Is it hard to translate that cross-generational appeal to the stage?
Here’s the thing. We’ve come to a point culturally in the States where if you are at a party and you say, “I write children’s books,” people go, “Oooh, that’s really exciting.”. . . But if you’re at that same cocktail party and you say, “I do children’s theater,” it’s just you and the canapes for the rest of the night.
I don’t know why that is, but I wanted to really make sure that when you see a piece with my characters, it has the same sort of “oooh, that’s cool” for the parents as well. And I’m also trying to bring really weird stuff while still being commercial or easy to reach or understandable. I’m not trying to confuse my audience. I love my audience.
What kind of weird stuff?
Two or three nights ago I saw a new Robert Wilson piece here in Paris with Willem Dafoe and [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, and some of the stuff he was doing, I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s great. That would be great in an ‘Elephant & Piggie.’ ”
[The show, “The Old Woman,” features the two actors in tuxes and Kabuki make-up having somewhat nonsensical exchanges.]
How do you like working on theater as opposed to books?
For me, it’s just an absolute joy. Originally, I come from television. And in television, sometimes there’s money, but there’s never any time. And the writer’s job is to get it written by Tuesday at 3 o’clock. And here, in theater, there’s no money but there’s all this time, and you get to spend time with the actors and you get to workshop and think about it. And I’ve got a dramaturg, and we can have these really deep, philosophical questions about whether this fart joke should go before or after the song.
You’ve written so many different characters. Was there ever any question about which book to adapt for a theater production?
Absolutely. The Kennedy Center was interested in “Elephant and Piggie,” and I had this idea for a rock opera based on [my book] “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed,” because I just think a bunch of people dressed as naked mole rats playing electric guitar would be awesome. . . . But there were lots of different visions, and I wasn’t interested in “Elephant and Piggie” until there was this idea of not doing one book but doing multiple books and making it a vaudeville piece.
What’s the narrative thread here since you’re combining a number of different books?
So [the play is] a series of very small existential crises leading to a very large existential crisis, which is that they become self aware. They realize that they themselves are in a play and the script has run out of pages. And so, how do you lead a script-free life? It’s Ionesco for kiddies.
So you’re in Paris for a year. What are you doing there?
I’m sitting in cafes and drawing people. I’m thinking. I’m working on my French. One day a week, I work hard, and I deal with publishers and do interviews. . . . This month I’ve mostly been getting rained on and stepping in dog poo. I’ve been doing a lot of that. But I’m taking a sabbatical. I’ve been working very, very hard and I tend to work seven days a week, so I’ve sort of accrued this vacation time.
It seems a little unfair to ask this during your time off, but do you see yourself doing more theater? What else will you be working on?
I’d love to do more theater. I’m not entirely sure how much it’s in my hands. . . . I’ll probably come out of Paris with at least one Paris-based book. But the bigger excitement is what I don’t know.
Saturday through Dec. 31 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW.