Director Dobrish Tacks Toward “Tilly the Trickster”

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Jeremy Dobrish is a director’s director. But also a playwright’s director. But also a director’s playwright. Also a playwright’s playwright.

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But maybe also a stage manager’s director and a designer’s playwright and a publicist’s marketer and a producer’s dramaturg — and not nearly as fiendishly complicated as this baroque introduction would imply. He’s actually a wonderfully straightforward man of the stage.

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Uncomplicated, of course, doesn’t mean not-complex. As one of the American theatre’s most resourceful, insightful artisans, with a rich portfolio of work, mostly Off-Broadway, he is the type of person who’d read the self-consciously clever intro paragraph of this post and consider it on its merits, diving into, with nary a blink, the comic possibilities of the conceit. “Hey,” you can hear him saying, “you left out costume designer’s ticket scalper.” And within five minutes he’d have outlined (in his head, anyway) a germ of a play about a costume designer’s ticket scalper. And the riff would vividly illustrate the fierce creativity behind the affable smile.

Which brings us to Dobrish’s latest project, a musical adaptation of Molly Shannon’s Tilly the Trickster, produced under the auspices of the Atlantic Theater Company’s Atlantic for Kids Program, at the Linda Gross Theater (336 W. 20th St.), running through Oct. 13. Dobrish wrote the book and directs the show, and Drew Fornarola contributed music and lyrics.

Tilly the Trickster, published just two years ago by SNL alumna Shannon, follows a “feisty, mischievous youngster” whose name you couldn’t possibly guess. Nor could you be surprised, given the title, that Tilly totally tilts toward playing pranks (and rolling her eyes, no doubt, at people who compulsively alliterate). The petite playing prankster possesses a pooch, Peppermint, with a penchant for Eastern philosophy. (Coming from Shannon, that ain’t no Occident.) Oh, it all seems so zen until one day when Tilly’s family finally turns the tables and plots some saucy scheming of its own.

And now, 5 questions Jeremy Dobrish has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I once asked [Second Stage Associate Artistic Director] Chris Burney why he hired me to direct something and he told me that he thought that as a director I had an uncanny ability to be both funny and honest at the same time. At the time I didn’t know what he was talking about, but what he said stuck in my mind and then I would start to notice myself in rehearsal cutting things that were funny but didn’t feel motivated, and I started to see what he meant. I think as directors we often tend to just do what we do, but we can learn so much from what people tell us about what it is about our work that resonates for them.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I don’t know if I would say “idiotic”, but a lot of times people just don’t know what directors do (I don’t blame them). When I tell people I’m directing a tour, for example, they often ask what cities I’m going to without realizing that the director only conducts rehearsals, and doesn’t generally attend the shows once the show is open and running.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I’m always amused when people say kind things about my work, and then go on to describe a show I didn’t direct. I never know if I should correct them or not. I almost always do, but it just ends up making them feel bad. Maybe it’s better to take credit for directing Rent or whatever.

4) How much of Tilly the Trickster is Jeremy Dobrish and Drew Fornarola and how much is Molly Shannon? If the answer is that it’s all of a piece, intended to be seamless, what is your process to get the balance between author and adaptor right?
Drew and I fell in love with Tilly, the other characters in the book, the tricks, the situations and the themes that Molly created. But the book is a quick read, and a straight musical adaptation of it would probably only take 15 minutes or so. Peppermint is Tilly’s dog, but in the book he doesn’t talk. In the show we learn that he has a penchant for Eastern philosophy, which isn’t in the book at all. Similarly, we get glimpses into Tilly’s dad and the principal in the show that go into more depth than what you get from the book. Part of the fun as a writer is figuring out how to make it all theatrical so, for example, Teddy (Tilly’s brother) is played by a puppet in the show which allows him to do several tricks that a person could never do.

5) What criticisms or pet peeves do you have about children’s books and musicals for young people? How did you ensure that you avoid those same mistakes in your own work?
One of the things I love about Tilly the Trickster is I think the parents will also have a really great time. As a father, I have sat through several kids shows that my children loved, but that I thought were dreck. I wanted to create a show that would work equally well for the parents and the children.

Bonus question:

6) As you’re writing a script that you know you’ll direct, how much pre-directing do you do in your head as you write? Is it a matter of taming different artistic impulses?
Well, to be honest, I didn’t know I would ever get the chance to direct Tilly when I was writing it. The plan was to license it through Theatrical Rights Worldwide (the publishing house that took a very early interest in Tilly and helped us tremendously in developing it), and the production at Atlantic turned out be a dream-come-true bonus. That being said, I always write with a director’s eye. I’m always imagining how it will actually work onstage. Is there enough time for a costume change? Do I have two characters on stage who are played by the same actor (oh, I’ve gotten scripts where it happens!)? My director self gets very frustrated at my writer self when I fail at that one. For example, in Tilly we found a scene that ended with Tilly being sent to her room, and then the next scene ended with Tilly being sent to her room. Whoops.