It was of course totally impossible to turn Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s best-selling children’s book, The 13-Storey Treehouse, into a play. Apart from a multi-level treehouse with a bowling alley, a secret underground laboratory and a tank full of man-eating sharks, the story requires a mermaid, a sea monster, an invasion of monkeys, a lemonade fountain, a giant gorilla and thirteen flying cats. All on a tight production budget.
Fortunately the book’s creators had offered a straw for a drowning playwright and cash-strapped producers to clutch at. In the original story, heroes Andy and Terry are supposed to deliver a book to their publisher Mr Big Nose by a fast-approaching deadline. They haven’t even started writing it.
So what if in the stage version our scatterbrained protagonists arrive in the theatre for what they think will be a rehearsal, only to find an audience expecting a performance. Andy and Terry have no costumes, no set, not even a script. Yet the show must go on.
We know that Theatre Sports audiences love watching actors, with fear in their eyes, desperately improvising on a bare stage, creating something out of nothing. Could we reproduce this excitement and sense of danger in a Treehouse play, using comically makeshift props and inviting our audience to ‘piece out our imperfections with their thoughts’?
A creative development workshop with a talented team – director, designer and actors – threw up a plethora of hilarious solutions to our staging problems. Author Andy Griffiths was in attendance and was very flexible about the major liberties we sometimes took with his story. The fun of the exercise was that ‘anything goes’, which seemed true to the spirit of the Treehouse world.
Andy Griffiths, Terry Denton and Griffiths’ wife and editor Jill spend months of careful thought, hard work and revision to create each Treehouse book. Yet they’re designed to look loose and spontaneous, as if they’ve been thrown together in an afternoon.
The stories are packed with the outrageous, anarchic naughtiness that appeals to young readers. The heroes, whom Denton’s cartoonish illustrations cunningly depict as neither children nor adults, are irresponsible, disorganised and silly, but also fearless, independent and brilliant at finding imaginative solutions to their predicaments. They may occasionally whack each other unconscious with an oversized banana or fire each other into space with a giant catapult, but they remain best friends forever.
Their amazing treehouse is every child’s fantasy and their adventures are those any child would love to have.
Reviews from parents are often along the lines of – ‘I couldn’t get my son to read until he discovered these books’, ‘She finished it in one sitting’, ‘Can’t wait to get the next one.’ The books are massive world-wide best-sellers. A Treehouse play needed to satisfy hundreds of thousands of devoted fans who knew the books inside out. No pressure, Richard.
So the response to the stage adaptations (five of them to date) has been very satisfying. Since the initial sell-out season in the Sydney Opera House for CDP Theatre Producers, the plays have toured all states of Australia, as well as New Zealand and the US, playing to hundreds of thousands of kids and parents. A production by the Dutch children’s theatre company Meneer Monster has just finished an award-winning season in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Each time The 13-Storey Treehouse play has been remounted, the new cast and production team have brought fresh ideas for stage business and clever lines. I’ve usually been able to be in the rehearsal room to approve such changes and I’m usually very happy to pretend I thought them up myself.
I now give my approval in advance for producers to use the script in whatever way suits their cast and production resources, finding their own creative solutions to the staging problems. Every show is different – that’s the magic of theatre.
The original production of The 13-Storey Treehouse was designed for a small company of adult actors, performing in fully equipped theatres with a professional crew. Amateur, school or youth theatre groups would possibly not have the technical resources we enjoyed, but are likely to have a larger cast available.
So in the published version of the script, I’ve expanded the number of roles to make it more suitable for performance or reading by an ensemble from a school or youth theatre. And since the story is quite episodic, self-contained scenes could be extracted from the play to make short presentations for school assemblies or drama workshops.
I wish everyone as much fun playing in the Treehouse as we’ve had.
Richard Tulloch's play The 13-Storey Treehouse: A play for young audiences will be published by NewSouth in July 2019.