Interview: Whole Hog Theatre [Princess Mononoke Stage Adaptation]

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by Joe Locastro | staff writer

Whole Hog Theatre company presents Princess Mononoke…on stage!

Hayao Miyazaki left a lasting legacy on the world of animation.  From My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away, fans for the past two and a half decades have been enjoying his work. His movies hit the big screens of North America and win prizes worldwide.  But of them all, the message and the impact of Princess Mononoke hits the hardest.

The ecological fairy-tale about Prince Ashitaka and his attempt to save a doomed forest struck home with many budding anime fans and became one of the first “must see” movies in anime, the one movie that even non-anime fans agreed was a hit.

Now, Whole Hog Theatre, based in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire (United Kingdom) has attained the rights to bring the first official adaptation of this beloved movie to the stage. Recently, Whole Hog launched a Kickstarter campaign to help crowd fund this production. The Kickstarter was a success within about the first week, surpassing their goal of £5,000 (around $8,000 US) and climbing. 

Inside AX threw a few questions at Charlie Hoare, one of the company directors at Whole Hog Theatre.

Inside AX: What was it specifically that got you to pick Princess Mononoke?  Was there another show/movie you were considering during the process?

Whole Hog (WH): We’re all big fans of Studio Ghibli but the original idea came from our artistic director, Alexandra Rutter, who is directing the project. When she pitched the idea to the rest of the team, the thing that seemed most attractive to me personally was the challenge of staging such a work. Part of our remit as a company is to raise the expectations of the worlds that are possible to create onstage. Princess Mononoke certainly fits that bill.

That’s not enough of a reason to adapt something, though – we are very aware that just because something can be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it should. For me, the story justifies our efforts to bring this film to life. The narrative is universal and raw – every character you meet is engaged in a desperate struggle to find their place in the world. The conflict presented is born out of those areas of belonging overlapping further than is comfortable.

It’s a story you see played out every day on mundane and global scales – people want to protect what they see as theirs so that they feel safe and secure. The drama is in the grey areas. Miyazaki doesn’t over-simplify the story with a ‘nature good, humans bad’ sort of binary. You can sympathize with both sides and you feel their conflict inside yourself. That’s a great thing to put onstage for people to experience live. I’m sure everyone on the project has their own reasons for getting involved, but those are mine.

In terms of other options, we did have a few alternative ideas for what we would do if Studio Ghibli hadn’t approved the project. Only one of the other options was a film though, and it wasn’t a Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki creation. These are projects that still might emerge in the future, so we’re keeping them quiet for now! In the past, we’ve adapted fairy tales, radio plays, and novels, some well-known and some obscure. We don’t have a specific art form that we prefer to adapt for the stage – we just go for the stories we like best.

IAX: What is going to be the biggest hurdle in transferring the anime to live theatre?

WH: Well, my job is to create the gods, demons and animals of Princess Mononoke, and to create them in a way that provokes the same response upon seeing them as the audience first felt when seeing Moro, Okkoto and Shishigami for the first time on screen. Our core aim with this production as a whole is to stay as true to the original as possible, so perhaps this is in fact the biggest overall hurdle – translating the techniques used in the animation into techniques that provoke the same feelings on stage.

The technique we’ve chosen for the particular challenge of creating Princess Mononoke’s creatures is puppetry. As an art form, puppetry is an absolute gift to this production – it is possible for puppets to do all sorts of things and take all sorts of forms that humans find impossible, and there is something about them that taps into a deeply rooted instinct to believe in all of us. When it comes to puppets, people are incredibly perceptive – it only takes a tiny movement from the puppet for audiences to understand a very complex emotion or intention. If you get your puppet and your puppeteering right, the audience and their imaginations will do the rest. Part of my challenge is to create puppets that can go right up to an audience member, close enough to touch, and for that person to be in no doubt that they are only a breath away from a living god. Our venue is very intimate, so this is likely to occur at many points during the production!

To overcome the hurdle of translation on a more general scale, our approach is to focus on being creative, thorough and innovative when examining the original. As a small company with very limited funding, we won’t just throw money at the show and expect it to make itself. All our energy is going into finding out what it is that makes Princess Mononoke so magical, and distilling its essence to present onstage. Part of that will involve taking on the film’s ecological message – the puppets, for example, will be hand made from recycled and reclaimed materials to ensure they have as little impact on the environment as possible. This is a challenge in itself, but one we feel driven to embrace for both environmental and creative reasons – it’s incredibly exciting to create something out of nothing!

IAX: What is the “dream adaptation” project for Whole Hog (If not Princess Mononoke, of course!)?

WH: Honestly, Princess Mononoke was always the dream. There were, and are, other projects in the pipeline, but this project was the one that was always in our sights. We were overwhelmed when we were given the go ahead to do it. For now our focus is entirely on creating the best production possible and making sure as many people as possible get to see it.

IAX: What’s been the best part of adapting Princess Mononoke?

WH: For me, it has been the incredible support we’ve been shown in adapting the film. Obviously the creative potential of the project is incredible, and as artists we are loving every aspect of the process, but I can’t get over the amount of people who have gotten behind us and sent messages of good luck and offers of help. These are people from all over the world, from friends and family to complete strangers, anime lovers and theatre fans alike. Kickstarter took off beyond our wildest dreams and donations are still coming in despite having reached our first target within a matter of days.

The New Diorama Theatre have been amazing in hosting the first run of the production and helping us with audition spaces. And of course, it goes without saying that we are more grateful that we can possibly say to Studio Ghibli for approving the adaptation.

We’ve also been inundated with messages and emails from artists offering their advice, time and expertise on the many complex aspects of the performance we’re creating. There are too many people to name here, but I’d like to send out a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has supported us – we simply couldn’t do this without you and we are so grateful.

IAX: Congrats on making your first Kickstarter goal!  Do you have any stretch goals planned?

WH: We’ve just added a stretch goal of £7,000 which will ensure that we can offer everyone involved a thank you fee for their work. At the moment, Whole Hog Theatre is run by volunteers and everyone works for free. Princess Mononoke is therefore a labour of love for all involved, and to be able to offer everyone who has been so generous with their time and talents a small token of our appreciation would be wonderful.

We are a not-for-profit organisation, meaning that all profits get reinvested back into the company, but we hope one day to be able to pay everyone in our organisation for the work they do. At the moment we just don’t have the funding, but with a little help from Kickstarter and our supporters, we can move a little closer to our goal.

IAX: It’s a shame we won’t be able to attend, but Inside AX looks forwards to hearing about and reporting on the opening of this exciting new project! Congrats again to Charlie and all of the Whole Hog team for making their goal, and good luck with the production!

Photos courtesy of  Polly Clare Boon for Whole Hog Theatre.

ABOUT WHOLE HOG THEATRE: Whole Hog Theatre is a young theatre company based in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire (UK) who specialise in adaptation. With the kind co-operation of Studio Ghibli they are staging the world’s first theatrical adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke at the New Diorama Theatre in London in April 2013.

Visit their Kickstarter page to donate to Whole Hog Theatre’s Princess Mononoke Kickstarter funding campaign. Visit to keep up with the latest news on Princess Mononoke.

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One Response to “Interview: Whole Hog Theatre [Princess Mononoke Stage Adaptation]”

  1. As a fan of Princess Mononoke, I think you’d like Oblivion Island!

    “An animated romp for the young and the young at heart! This internationally acclaimed feature film blends Japanese folklore and storybook charm reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland into an exhilarating tale sure to amaze animation fans of all ages. Sixteen-year-old Haruka is on a mission to find her mirror—a precious childhood gift from her late mother that has disappeared. On her search, she follows a strange fox-like creature to Oblivion Island, a mystical world overflowing with once-cherished items taken from their neglectful owners. Trouble follows Haruka and her new friend Teo at every turn as they contend with the island’s overbearing ruler, who will stop at nothing to use the mirror for his own sinister plan!”