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The Open Road: Behind the Script of Willows


Written by Brenna Wickstrom

Mr. Toad rides off, recklessly, into the horizon.
Connor Marshall as the indelible Mr. Toad

Way back in the pandemic days, when the world was quarantined, we had a little idea to keep sharing stories. You might remember it, but more likely, you don't. I had this thought to adapt classic stories and make them into, essentially, radio plays. We called them "play casts". Like a podcast, but you heard a story being performed as if you were listening to a live play.

Did I know anything about sound engineering? No. Had I ever created a podcast? No. Had I ever recorded anything before? Still-- no. I was totally out of my element, but I wanted to stay busy. We adapted Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows for this mini series. I would adapt several chapters into 15-20 minute episodes that were constructed like a play. It was so much fun! I discovered that I really liked creating sound, and it brought hope that maybe one day we would go back to seeing live storytelling again.

Mole, peeking out of his underground house.
Ford Filson as the curious and blind Mole

A lot has changed since then. We're not in masks anymore, or hiding in our holes like the shy Mole. (Well, maybe you are-- I don't blame you) Just like spring, we are beginning to awake. We are coming out of hibernation, back to the real world, but we are finding that we wouldn't ever want to go back to 'before the pandemic'. Entertainment businesses are just now getting back on their feet after three years worth of closure. Is it closure? I don't think we ever got that. So, that was a little bit of our intention in restaging The Wind in the Willows.

We wanted to pay homage to that strange time in our lives, but Justice and I also wanted to create something incredibly fast-paced and funny after a long stint of heartache without neglecting Kenneth Grahame's purpose for the story. The play has morphed and evolved quite a bit. If you're familiar with the story, you may have seen the Disney short with the indelible Toad. The character of Mr. Toad steals the show, for sure, but what Disney failed to do is highlight the beautiful characters Kenneth Grahame created. Ratty, Mole, and Badger. It isn't a story solely about Toad. It's an ensemble piece. A tale of friendship-- the good and bad of it -- but, ultimately, how we very much need one another to get through this life.

Ratty in a hammock at Wheeler District Ferris Wheel OKC
Brigid McDonald as the ship-shape Ratty

The play is also a celebration of nature. It allows us to glimpse into the lives of these Animals. While Grahame intended them to be anthropomorphic (animals with human qualities) we have inverted that idea. We are humans with animalistic qualities.

This concept allowed us to discover that we wanted to utilize the acting styles of commedia dell'arte in our production. The origins of mask derived from hunters in ancient times as a form of imitation to attract their prey. Later on, commedia was formed around the idea of the mask exemplifying characteristics of certain animals in the mask's construction as well as the actor's physical movements. The history of commedia is long and blurred. So much of the art has been lost, because there isn't a lot written about it.

However, what we do know is that it derived as an early form of professional theatre in Italy during the 16th and 17th century.

Focusing on masked stock characters, the plays were made up of lazzi, or fun bits of nonsense centering around funny plots and jokes. It has been an integral part of theatre for centuries. Sometimes lying dormant, but never truly going away. It gave rise to female actresses, improvised comedy, and pantomime. It's an incredible art form! If you watch Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Marcel Marceau, and even Carol Burnett, you can see a lot of their work directly aligns with commedia.

Connor Marshall as Mr. Toad

In our production, we wanted to build on the lazzi! By breaking the fourth wall, and involving the audience in the show, it links our origins of theatre. In our world today, there are constant remakes of movies, books, television, and media. It's tricky, because you could call us one of those companies. However, our stance comes from a place of preservation. We seek to preserve author's intent while honoring our audiences shared perspectives about the world.

In a world that seems more divisive than any other time in history, the theater has always been a haven where people could go to share an experience. Our post-pandemic world mirrors that of a post-war generation. So much of what we see in the news, on the streets, scrolling through social media is just so sad. Maddening. Frustrating. Tiresome. All we wanted during COVID, and even now, is peace.

Brigid McDonald as Ratty and Ford Filson as Mole

Setting our adaptation of The Wind in the Willows against the backdrop of the late 60s and early 70s seemed right to us. This is a time in our lives where we should seek peace --not war-- at all costs. Continue to make art, seek it out, and share it. Our biggest hope when you see this production is that you laugh hard, empathize with these Animals, and feel a little more connected to your neighbor than you did when you came to see us. Because just like the characters in this play, whether it be the good and the bad, we all really do need each other to get through this life.

Performances: August 10th-13th


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