Jim Morrow, Managing Artistic Director of Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia shared his thoughts with TPAC Teaching Artist, Beth Anne Musiker, on the upcoming performance of It’s Okay to Be Different – Stories by Todd Parr, for which he serves as both Director and Production Designer.

This Q&A was originally published in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Season for Young People. Some answers have been shortened for length.

What inspired you to take on Todd Parr’s stories for this Mermaid Theatre production?

We base all our plays on the written work of respected authors. Todd Parr’s books are interesting because they share messages which are more overt than many stories we’ve chosen in the past, and yet, are explained with a gentleness and humor. I aim to create plays in which children can participate, so the experience becomes much more than sitting and listening.

Why did you choose these Todd Parr stories?

Todd’s work is very playful. We are attracted to the brightness of Todd’s imagery, and the simplicity of his characters in It’s Okay to Be Different. He’s not trying to overwhelm you with detail; he leaves a lot to the imagination. I think it’s important to introduce children to the notion that if you’re sitting in the audience, and you feel somehow different from the people around you, that’s okay. Not only that, but let’s celebrate our diversity because that helps us grow and learn.

Will the performers be narrating the book as it was written?

Nothing has been altered in terms of the wording. The children will hear narration using language that comes directly from the book. This is My Hair will be narrated using the recorded voices of the two performers. For The Earth Book, we’re very excited to partner with highly respected Mi’kmaw, spoken word artist, Rebecca Thomas, as narrator. The Mi’kmaw are the Indigenous people of Atlantic Canada, and we think it’s perfectly fitting to have a Mi’kmaw spokesperson for good stewardship of the earth.

For It’s Okay to Be Different, we have six children in grades three and four from different cultures who narrate the story. We had a lot of fun working with and recording these six young children from Armbrae Academy in Halifax. They were incredible and brought a lightness of touch, a beauty, and warmth to the piece that an adult couldn’t bring.

Are you able to tell us about the music in the show?

The music is an important element of the production. We have extraordinary Nova Scotian composers, originally from Sri Lanka, working with us. For The Earth Book they are pulling sounds from the Amazon that are evocative of the rainforests.

Did I see that you are using glow paint for a portion of the show?

Yes – for the whole thing! This will be an entirely “black lit” show that allows performers to be both seen and unseen! Using fluorescent paint and ultraviolet lighting means the performers can be hidden until the light hits the objects which creates interesting, magical moments that provide some mystery for audiences.

It’s hard to ignore Todd Parr’s use of black line in his illustrations. How did you choose to handle that?

This is where things become complicated. Anything that is black disappears against the black background. As a result, we couldn’t outline the objects, but we do have significant black lines within the shapes, so black lines separate the skirt from the blouse, or the legs from the pant or the shoes, for example. Anytime there’s black hair like in This is My Hair, we have taken light gray paint and outlined the shape. So, you will be able to see the black in between the gray lines.

Jim Morrow, Artistic Director of Mermaid Theatre
Jim Morrow, Artistic Director of Mermaid Theatre

To what degree will the imagery be faithful to the story, or how much will you be opening it up?

The production is 100% faithful to the story and the images. Audiences will see the characters from the books on stage. They are going to be identical in color and shape. We must place the characters in Todd Parr’s world, but we can choose how much of the scene in the book we really need to set the context.

Have there been some innovations in your puppetry as you prepare this piece?

It takes a huge amount of time for us to work out the choreography in a way that keeps the action moving and allows the performers to be in the right place at the right time to handle the objects in time to the music. Figuring out this portion of each show is always a huge challenge, and we discover how it’s going to work as we do it. Manipulating these flat objects that have limited movement themselves is something new for us, so the challenge is learning how best to handle them and keep it entertaining.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yes! While I act like the quarterback of a football team, there’s an entire team of dedicated and creative people working on this play, and they have been working on it for a while now. They pour heart and soul into it. We have an extraordinary team of people here at Mermaid who will make this possible.

It’s Okay to Be Different runs on the MTYP Mainstage from January 20-29. To purchase your tickets today, head here.