Who wouldn't want to live in a treehouse? Especially a 13-storey treehouse that has a bowling alley, a see-through swimming pool, a tank full of sharks, a library full of comics, a secret underground laboratory, a games room, self-making beds, vines you can swing on, a vegetable vaporiser and a marshmallow machine that follows you around and automatically shoots your favourite flavoured marshmallows into your mouth whenever it discerns you're hungry.

This is the wonderful and wacky world of The 13-Storey Treehouse – Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s delightful new children’s book series which has been adapted for the stage and promises to continue the book’s funny narrative within a narrative style, in which the characters Andy and Terry struggle to write a book that eventually becomes The 13-Storey Treehouse.

Griffiths and Illustrator Denton are a formidable team producing the Just! series of books, the Bad Books, the Flat Cat and  Big Fat Cow series and the very very coolly titled Andy & Terry's World Of Stupidity to name just a few.

"I’ve worked and laughed and experimented on more than 25 books over the past 20 years with the illustrator Terry Denton and my wife and editor, Jill. Every book was a step forward in finding new, more effective ways to combine words and pictures to tell the funniest and most surprising stories possible. When we all get together to write and draw and brainstorm stories it feels just like we’re a bunch of ten-year-olds lost in imaginative play."

Griffiths  grew up reading Lewis Carroll, Prof E.W. Cole, Dr Seuss, Enid Blyton, Mad Magazine and American Horror comics. He felt so inspired by these that he started writing his own crazy stories.  However his ambition to be a writer was hijacked in his teens and early twenties by his desire to write lyrics and sing them out front of a variety of alternative punk bands in Melbourne (Griffiths was a vocalist with 80's alternative rock bands such as  Gothic Farmyard and Skippy the Butcher) but, he tells me, his interest—and talent—ultimately lay in the writing, not the singing.

"I was very influenced by Gary Shandling’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s self-referential approach to story-telling. In both The Gary Shandling Show and Seinfeld, Shandling and Seinfeld played larger-than-life versions of themselves dealing with exaggerated everyday dramas. I found this approach really suited my own story-telling so, more often than not, I cast myself and people I know or have known in the main roles and write wildly exaggerated versions of stuff that actually happens."

While we all know kids love fart and bum jokes in general, writing for children is a million times more than that and a  million times harder – although Griffiths did create the  ultimate bum tale with his BUM series of books chronicling the  story of Zack Freeman, his crazy runaway bum, a crack bum-fighting unit called the B-team and some of the biggest, ugliest and meanest bums ever to roam the face of the Earth.

Griffiths identifies the secret to success as a combination of a few things: "A strong sense of playfulness is an advantage and a willingness to work really hard to tell a compelling story simply and clearly without over-explaining or talking down to the reader. It’s also important to realise you have to satisfy and delight three audiences: yourself as artist, your primary readers (the children) and your secondary readers (parents, teachers and librarians)."

Nowadays, Griffiths and Denton books appear in every school library (and libraries in general) kids devour them in the playground (not literally) and stuff them into schoolbags to devour some more on the trip home. Kids laugh out loud and get into the phantasmagorical world on offer – they identify –  but for Griffiths the road to this super stardom hasn't just happened over night.

"It was a journey of ten years between hanging up the microphone and getting my first book, Just Tricking!, published and, yes, there were many knockbacks along the way. The main problem was that my humour was naturally very left of centre and it took me a long time to learn to control and harness it so that it helped me to tell a comprehensible story rather than just (metaphorically) explode in the reader’s face. My first rejection slip said something like, ‘I can see it’s very original and entertaining but I can’t see a market for this type of fiction.’ This was a puzzling one … it suggested that what they were looking for was unoriginal and non-entertaining fiction! Fortunately I ignored it and just kept on trying."

The 13-Storey Treehouse  has become a bestseller and now is  a sell-out show. The book also won ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children 2012.  So how much input did Griffiths have in the stage adaption and what has this collaborative experience been like:

"The book is about Andy and Terry trying to write a book and the playwright Richard Tulloch has done a brilliant adaptation of the book for the stage in that the play is about Andy and Terry trying to stage a play that they haven’t written. It tracks the book exactly but in a way that works for the stage rather than the page. I see and comment on each draft of the play and sit in on the week-long script development process (with the actors, director, stage manager, designer, etc) adding my ideas for jokes and character development as we go. Richard is very gracious and open to suggestions so it’s a very consultative and creative process. I’m there in a sort of ‘all care, no responsibility’ way, which suits me fine!"

Griffiths can’t say whether this collaborative formula should always be the case but in the theatrical experiences he's had where he's been involved in the staging process (Just Macbeth! with the Bell Shakespeare Company and the treehouse shows with CDP) he has found it a tremendously rewarding creative experience, which he admits to learning a lot from.

"It’s also been a lot of fun and never stressful or adversarial in any way. I have heard anecdotes that suggest this is not always the case but my experiences have been nothing but positive and I think having the author and playwright involved in the staging benefits the production because they know the characters and story best and can help the actors and director and other creative members of the team bring the story to the stage in a way that is in tune with the original source material."

Griffiths hopes to be sharing a really compelling, funny and thrilling experience of the unique power of live theatre in the company of some  favourite book characters.

"We wanted to try to capture the fun (and occasional terror) of this feeling and came up with the idea of us all living in an ever-expanding treehouse trying desperately to deal with bizarre distractions so that we can write our book. I think children have responded to the books the way they have because they love the playfulness, the joy, the depiction of friendship and they seem to get a real imaginative lift from the idea of creating a silly, crazy treehouse (Terry and I get many letters in which children write about or draw their own imaginative treehouses)."

April 5 – 13
artscentremelbourne.com.au

 

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