Thursday, December 17, 2015

Min Kahng Discusses Adapting Bad Kitty for the Stage

Playwright Min Kahng. Photo by Ben Krantz.
By Vivian Auslander
He created BACT’s award-winning musical version of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and our hit Tales of Olympus: A Greek Myth Musical. Now, the multi-talented Min Kahng is writing the script and the musical score for our upcoming world premiere of Bad Kitty on Stage! Below, he discusses what inspired him about Nick Bruel ‘s popular Bad Kitty comic series and how he is adapting the series for young audiences.
Q:  How did Bad Kitty on Stage! come to be?
A:  Our Executive Director Nina Meehan proposed the project—her sons were reading the series and loving it.  When I read the books, the first thing that jumped out at me was their unique style—a combination of comic books and chapter books—and I thought it would be fun and interesting to put that style onstage.  But I needed to feel an emotional resonance as well, and two of the books grabbed me right away—Bad Kitty Meets the Baby, which explores how Kitty reacts to the new addition to her family, and Bad Kitty School Daze, which struck me because the amazingly patient teacher tells Kitty at the end of the day that she doesn’t think she’s a bad kitty at all. I can imagine children needing reinforcement like that and how it would help them grow.  In fact, all the animal characters in the series are childlike, with their unique quirks and eccentricities, and they are all working on growing up.  For me, the stories are about what it’s like to grow up and learn important lessons, and I’ve kept that in mind along with the humor and the quirkiness to help make the story line cohesive and authentic.
Q: In the series, Kitty doesn’t use words.  How do you make that work on stage?
Actor Sango Tajima as Bad Kitty. Photo by Melissa Nigro.
A: We debated that a lot at the beginning, wondering if we should have Kitty speak.  But we wanted to be faithful to the universe of the books.  So the challenge was what that meant—how do you translate the images in the books to a human actor?  Casting was the key, and we are extremely fortunate to have Sango Tajima, a gifted physical actor whose face can tell you what Kitty is feeling in a cartoon manner that is also genuine!  It was clear to us from the first reading of the play, just from Sango’s face and movements, that she could tell the story.  And, in the script, while I write “meow” or other animal sounds, I also include parenthetical statements of what I want the sounds to mean to guide the actors as to what their intention should be.
Q:  What were your goals for the music that underscores the action of the play?
A:  When I started thinking about the style of the music, I recalled the Saturday morning cartoons I’d watched as a child—like Looney Tunes, where the background music plays such a big role in setting the mood and creating the sound effects.  I wanted to incorporate that sensibility into the play. Then, we workshopped the play, and realized that the music had to be performed live to provide vibrant energy and to choreograph precisely with what’s happening on stage.  We were very lucky to find Phil Wong, who is both an actor and a pianist.  Phil will be our narrator, and he’ll play the score and improvise as needed. I’m very excited to be collaborating with him.  He’ll take what I compose and give us his feedback about how it’s working with the characters and the scenes.
Q:  The Bay Area Children’s Theatre has co-commissioned Bad Kitty On Stage! with the Oregon Children’s Theatre.  What does that mean?
A:  Both companies are producing this show for the first time—our run begins in January, theirs in February.  And it’s been a fascinating experience for me, because I have to make sure the script and the music work for both productions.  For example, the sets for our BACT shows have to be compact and moveable, since we perform in three different locations.  Oregon has a big traditional proscenium stage. When we send Kitty up into a “tree,” we are working with the idea of a tree.  Their production includes something much more like a real tree, so they’ll need enough transition music for Kitty to get into and out of the tree.  My challenge is to make the score and the script elastic enough to meet different needs.
Director Benjamin Hanna at our first read-thru with the Bad Kitty cast.
Q:  Now that the show is in rehearsal, what is your role?
A: I’ll be in the rehearsal room to help clear up any questions about the script or how the music fits into the action on stage. I can make changes or re-write as the needs arise. 
Q:  Nick Bruel, the author and illustrator of the Bad Kitty books, will be here for the opening?
A:  Yes. He reached out to us when he was visiting the Bay Area some months ago.  He was pleased and surprised by how faithful our adaptation is to the series, which made me feel good, because I wanted to capture the spirit of the books.  He will be here for our opening day performances, signing books and joining us for a reception with our donors.
Bad Kitty On Stage opens at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in downtown Berkeley on January 23rd. The show runs from January 23-February 21 in Berkeley, February 27-28 in San Ramon, and March 5-26 in San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets.

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