Stage One Family Theatre opens its season at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts with “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” a world premiere musical for young audiences.
“Wiley and the Hairy Man” isn’t a new play. Suzan Zeder wrote it 40 years ago, adapting a Depression Era tale from the Works Progress Administration’s Folklore Project. It’s the story of a young boy who lives in a swamp with his mother, a magic-wielding “conjure woman,” and his loyal dog, headed for a showdown with a big, hairy trickster.
“The roots do come from the South and it’s a very, very old story that has a brand new telling,” says Zeder.
When Stage One approached her about producing “Wiley” this season, Zeder mentioned that she had always wanted to see it as a musical. Cue Louisville jazz composer Harry Pickens, whom Stage One commissioned to collaborate with the playwright to set “Wiley” to song. The two worked for 11 months to incorporate Pickens’ original compositions into the story. Zeder says she thought she knew her play well until the music came in.
“The play had always been carried by its story. It’s a great story about a little boy with a big fear,” says Zeder. “The minute we added music the primary language of the play shifted, and I needed to create breath in the play to allow music to really tell the story.”
“So it’s really quite different. The basic plot line is the same, but I think the characters are deeper. They have moments when they can show us their emotions,” she adds.
“Wiley and the Hairy Man,” which is recommended for students in kindergarten through grade 3, has been produced all over the United States and translated into six languages. Zeder is one of the leading playwrights of theater for young audiences in the country. Her plays have been produced in all 50 states and internationally, and she teaches in the playwriting program at the University of Texas at Austin, where she holds an endowed chair position in theatre for youth and also teaches in the Michener Center for Creative Writing.
Zeder says it’s a common misconception that theater written specifically for children has to be simple, but it does have to move fast.
“I think it has to have vitality. I think it has to have genuine emotions. It can’t pause and linger and get too obscure,” says Zeder. “I think really, really good theater for young people is good theater for anybody, because the one thing every adult in the world has in common is they were once a child.”
About 26,000 early elementary students will see “Wiley and the Hairy Man” this month. It’s part of Stage One’s underwritten “Play It Forward” program, which provides tickets at no cost to public, private, parochial and home school groups.
“Wiley and the Hairy Man” shows mainly to school groups, but tickets to public performances are available for October 13 and 20 in the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theatre.