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Bringing ‘A Monster Calls’ from the page to the stage

Director Sally Cookson talks about her theatrical adaptation of the acclaimed novel, now at the Kennedy Center

Anthony Aje, right, as Conor and Keith Gilmore, left, as the Monster in “A Monster Calls” at the Kennedy Center. (Manuel Harlan)
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In 2018, when the acclaimed British director Sally Cookson was preparing to debut her stage adaptation of the popular young-adult novel “A Monster Calls” for the Old Vic in Bristol, England, she faced a daunting challenge: How do you transform a yew tree into a walking, talking monster, then back into a tree — all within the budgetary and time limitations of live theater?

That metamorphosis was central to the appeal of Patrick Ness’s 2011 novel about Conor, a 13-year-old British boy trying to cope with his mother’s cancer. In Ness’s story, at 12:07 a.m. most nights, the yew tree on a nearby hill grows arms, legs and a face; it then marches up to Conor’s window to give him advice, often unwelcome.

Ness’s evocative prose and Jim Kay’s striking black-and-white illustrations were enough to make this transformation fully persuasive. In the well-received 2016 film adaptation — starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver and, as the voice of the CGI monster, Liam Neeson — digital effects created a walking tree of woven branches, lit within by a glowing fire. But how do you make that work on the stage?

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“We were doing a workshop,” Cookson remembers, “and we had to make a decision about how to design the tree. I wanted a big, monstrous tree that could be inhabited by an actor and could appear and disappear quickly. We built one tree out of paper, then another out of wood. They both looked really beautiful, but they were too hard to disassemble quickly. I didn’t want to use a projection because that felt like a cop-out.

“During lunchtime, a stage manager found a big heap of ropes that weren’t being used. It took all of us to haul all these ropes onto the stage. Once we had these 20 ropes hanging from the ceiling, it was an epiphanal moment. Just by wrapping the hanging ropes inside a loose rope, we could make a glorious tree — and just as quickly unmake it or change it into many different kinds of trees.”

Cookson’s version of “A Monster Calls,” at the Kennedy Center through June 12, is a perfect example of the director’s theatrical methodology. Whether she’s adapting Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” or “A Monster Calls,” she prefers to start without a script. Instead, she encourages the cast and crew to improvise action and design, as well as dialogue, to find the best way to tell the story.

“I see my role as an enabler, a facilitator,” she explains. “I try to make the rehearsal room feel safe. The rule is anyone can say anything, anyone can do anything, and no one’s going to make fun of them. Because of that, people feel free to fly. If people feel safe, they come up with amazing things. I’m always astonished by the ideas that come out of development. How can I bring a tree to life onstage? How can I get the ideas out of this young boy’s head onto the stage? I might have my own answers, but it’s always better to talk it out with a room of people.”

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Films, she adds, can do naturalism so brilliantly that she’s not interested in competing on those terms. In fact, she says, having a big budget for a stage show can actually cramp your inventiveness. If you can afford to create a real tree or a real house, you lose the ability to show the audience how one thing can turn into something else: a bunch of ropes into a yew tree, a pile of chairs into a home. Audiences, especially young audiences, are more willing to make those leaps than we give them credit for.

“It’s not about naturalism,” Cookson says. “It’s about allowing the audience to see through the tricks to see how they’re done. That doesn’t stop the audience from going with us and believing there is a giant onstage. It takes them back to the dressing-up box at home as a kid, when they transformed themselves into an animal or another being. I love the idea of kids seeing this onstage and going home to re-create the same images. At that point, it’s no longer an elite art form. It’s for anyone.”

If you go

A Monster Calls

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www kennedy-center.org.

Dates: Through June 12.

Prices: $35-$139.

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