Fertile Ground Portland

A Festival of New Works Blog

OCT + Small Steps: Getting out the bullshit factor November 23, 2009

The challenges of growing up can’t be quantified, but studies sure do try.  Some numbers:
*  The national high school graduation rate hovers around 70%, with some cities as low as 25%, and Oregon coming in at 68% in 2008.
*  The recidivism rate for kids who have been incarcerated is over 65%.
The figures are grimmer for poor and ethnic populations.

Keep this in mind when you meet a fallen-down-but-climbing-back-up kid like Armpit, the hero of Small Steps, Louis Sachar’s adaptation of his book, commissioned by Oregon Children’s Theatre and slated for full production this spring.   You may remember Armpit from Camp Green Lake Juvenile Correctional Facility – a twisted boot camp from Sachar’s Holes where kids, well, dug holes all day on a bizarre treasure hunt.

Fertile Grounders will get a sneak peak at Small Steps’ development on January 22 during its staged reading at Madison High School, where, as Stan Foote, director, puts it, teens will assist with getting out the “bullshit factor.”

theresa – What is the story of Small Steps?

Stan Foote – Oh boy [laughs].  The story is about Armpit, a character from Holes, two years [after Holes] and he’s trying to get his life together and stay out of trouble.  So the importance of the story to me is his small steps that he’s taking, which are to get a job, graduate high school, save some money, stay out of situations that might be dangerous, and lose the name Armpit.

And then there’s a character in the story called Ginny, a ten-year-old who has cerebral palsy, and small steps sort of applies to her because she’s trying to heal.  The other main character is Kaira and she is a pop singer who is in a situation where her manager/step father is abusive and controlling.  So these three characters sort of meet together in this little adventure, which is Armpit meeting her and having a pretty…. They admire each other.  I’d hate to call it a romance.  It’s not a sexual story.  It’s a story about two kids who really like each other and find friendship with each other from different communities.  And it’s an adventure from thereon.

th – What attracted you to it?

SF – The small steps.  The high school graduation rate nationally and locally is amazingly poor, dropouts at every juncture of middle school and high school.  And here you have a kid in trouble that is making an actual effort to graduate from high school and get his life back on track.  I like the idea of taking things one step at a time.  I think we throw a lot of future on kids as opposed to present.  I think we’re future-thinking as opposed to what to do today, what things can I do today to make my life better, and how can I improve today.  I like that idea.  I think it’s a good model for kids to follow, and especially [Armpit’s] being an African-American young man.  I don’t like hitting people over the head with message and I don’t think this does.  I think you see a character that’s improving his life through a very short-term planning process that is doable.  He’s not perfect – he makes mistakes, but he gets through it.

th – What do you think is going to draw in the audience?

SF – Louis Sachar, Newberry Award-winning writer writing his third play.

th – What were the first two plays he wrote?

SF – He did the script for Holes and the script for There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom.  And then other people have adapted his works – Sideways Stories from Wayside School [which OCT is producing this spring].

th – Do you think there’s something in Small Steps that adults can pick up as well?

SF – Oh, well, yeah.  I think it’s going to be interesting for adults.  One of the things I like about this story is the romance is just a friendship.  [Armpit and Kaira] really like each other but they go on with their lives and it’s playful as far as how they behave around each other, but it’s not over-sexualized.  And I think there’s an over-sexualization of teens right now.  Of kids.  Just dress, conceptually with what they see on TV and commercials and stuff like that, and I think it’s interesting to see a relationship that is about friendship and people liking each other and not about, “When are we going to have sex?”

th – What do you think brings Armpit and Kaira together?

SF – It’s fate that brings them together.  I mean it is a hundred percent fate – an accident – and [Kaira’s] looking for something real to hang out with.  She doesn’t get to hang out with friends of her own and [Armpit] is just in the process of going through his life, and there they meet.  And Ginny’s part of that too.  I think that’s an interesting relationship – having a 17-year-old young man whose best friend is a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy.  I love that the book doesn’t explain it and that the play doesn’t explain it.  What explains it is they like each other, and I love that.  There’s nothing stuck about him pitying her or anything.  There’s nothing but admiration between the two of them, and I love that.  That’s very interesting and unique.

th – Do you have a favorite scene, line, or character in the play?

SF – I have a favorite line:  “Y-you have a very beautiful soul.”  It’s something that Ginny says to [Armpit]….  It is how she admires what he does and both of them seem to have flaws that the other one doesn’t even notice because they think so much of [each other’s] courage.

th – Would you or anyone at OCT have an embarrassing nickname you’d want to reveal to the world?

SF – My last name is Foote.  That’s enough.

th – Did you commission this from Louis?

SF – Yeah, and Karl Mansfield [whose Oregon credits include working with PCS and OSF] is doing the music.  And the music is red-hot and rollin.’   [Sadly, for this blogger, a sample of the music can’t be released at this time, but let’s just say that it covers the gamut from sassy pop to latin backbeat.]

th – What is the collaborative process between you and Louis?  Is there any back-and-forth?

SF – There is back-and-forth, and he’s a really good writer.  In writing a play and doing the rewrites I think the tendency is to throw stuff out and all of that, and some of the writers I’ve worked with try to add more things to cover a problem where I think sometimes it’s just just deleting a word or adding a word.  An example of that is El Genius in this book is doing threatening letters as a character called Billy Boy, who’s imaginary, and he’s threatening Kaira to keep her in line.  In the book that’s really really clear but in the play the first time we got it, it wasn’t clear because there’s a visual of those letters you’re supposed to connect immediately.  And in the rewrite [Louis] just added two words to connect El Genius to Billy Boy.  Just two words from one character in a scene and the connection was strong, as opposed to adding things or adding a whole line of dialogue or anything else.  I like that.  Yeah, we’re collaborating well and then [Louis had] never met Karl.  My main thing on this project was making sure that they had a good relationship.  That they liked each other.  Karl’s a buddy of mine from New York, formerly from Portland.

th – Is Louis going to get to attend the reading in January?

SF – Yes he is, and Karl will be here too.  Louis also wants to be in on the rehearsal process.  Part of his contract says he comes here and watches rehearsals.

th – Do you know if he’ll do rewrites or anything?

SF – Oh yeah.

th – Is there anything else you might want on the blog about the production?

SF – You know, we already have a cast, the rock songs are going to rock, the music is great.

th – Is there going to be music in the reading as well?

SF – Yeah.  And it’s at Madison High School, which I think is really interesting.  Part of this process is to get out the bullshit factor, to make sure this is the way kids talk, you know, so having a reading at a high school where the characters are these kids’ age, just to see what they think, see if there’s any place they go, “Oh that’s stupid.”  That’s why I wanted the reading at a high school.

* * *

If you don’t know Louis Sachar, I guarantee you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy his work.  Between now and the Festival, pick up Holes, or Small Steps, or my personal favorite discovered at age 22, Stargirl.  They’re pocket-sized quick reads during those 10-minute rehearsal breaks.

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