It’s a common bedtime plea: “Just one story!”
Usually, it’s a child making the request of his or her mother or father. But when Jerry R. Montoya, associate producer and contributing playwright for the B Street Theatre, came down with a major case of writer’s block, it was his son, Malachi, who was getting the “Pretty-please-tell-me-a-story” treatment.
“I was working on a stage adaptation of ‘Hansel & Gretel,’” began Montoya. “Like many of the Grimm fairytales, it’s very short with not a lot of backstory, told in a straight line with a clear message.”
“One night, I was re-outlining the plot and waiting for inspiration,” Montoya continued. “I was kind of moving forward, but without a real sense of what I wanted to do with it.”
With a looming deadline for the show, which opens April 28 on the B Street Theatre’s B3 stage, Montoya was running out of time for an appropriately loopy light-bulb to go off.
“When I was writing the play on Harriet Tubman, I read a bunch of biographies about her, and checked out a lot of children’s books to see how that adult topic had been adapted for kids,” said Montoya, referring to his 2010 Family Series world premiere of “The Conductor: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.”
“Thinking of that one night is what inspired me to go into Malachi’s room and ask him if he knew the story of ‘Hansel & Gretel,’ what he remembered about it, and what was his lasting impression.”
“He said, ‘You know, it’s not a very good story.’”
Father and son agreed that the Brothers Grimm weren’t only known by that moniker because it happened to be their name. Aside from featuring a house made of gingerbread, “Hansel & Gretel” was as sweet and funny as a woodsman-turned-assassin with an axe to grind.
The impromptu meeting of Montoya minds led to a mini-brainstorming session.
“I asked him what would make it better, what’s missing,” said Montoya. “He said it didn’t have pets. I then asked, who should have pets? He said Hansel and Gretel could have a pet dog, and the witch could have a cat. That’s how it began. I came back to him the next day and asked if he wanted to formally work on it with me.”
Though Malachi, a fifth-grader at Sacramento’s Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School, has been crafting personal writing projects for almost three years – including a collection of short stories he hopes will become a full-length book, and a comic about a dog named “Oscar” – he and his father had never hovered over a keyboard to collaborate.
The invitation to work together on “Hansel & Gretel” elicited a quick “yes” from Malachi.
“I was surprised and excited,” said the 11-year-old, whose career aspirations are far from set in stone, but are typically wide ranging for a pre-teen, and include such jobs as writer ("It’s creative and fun."), inventor and race-car driver.
Montoya said like any good parent, he’s not interested in force-feeding Malachi any particular vocation, but said Malachi’s facility with words was evident early on.
“He’s shown a talent, a sense of irony unique to someone so young,” said Montoya. “He understands the basics of what makes a great story and an innate sense of who the characters are.”
With his son playing the part of muse, and offering rapid-fire, out-of-the-box suggestions and scenarios, Montoya discovered dozens of departure points instead of one big dead-end. “Once he and I got going, it really tumbled quickly,” said Montoya, who promised he was going to reward his junior partner with a hefty bonus to his allowance.
“I would ask, ‘What could happen next? Then what would happen?’ And he just started coming up with ideas about what Hansel and Gretel’s dog would do, what the witch talks about with her cat (‘She doesn’t want to be a witch anymore.’), what exactly happened to Hansel and Gretel’s mother, and why the witch needed the kids.
“We went through the entire play in a couple of nights, with it becoming more of the witch’s story than all about Hansel and Gretel. We would riff on each scene, coming up with what could happen, and then I’d dialogue it.”
Montoya said he and wife Erika, a scenic-artist-turned-biologist, have always emphasized language arts with Malachi, and that attention to those skills helped fuel his imagination.
“My wife constantly reads him stories, she has since he was very young,” said Montoya. “What I used to do with him was ask him to give me three things – like a donkey, a kangaroo and a squirrel – and I’d make up a story on the spot. We’d do that from the time he was 2 to 7. He’d just give me elements of a story, and I’d give him a basic tale.
“That laid the pipe for how stories are created, the elements you have to have to write a story.
“In following those steps for ‘Hansel & Gretel,’ he gave me completely new elements with which to improve and complete the show. I went from, ‘I don’t get this at all, to having thunder behind my typing.”
Malachi said coming up with new ideas was relatively easy, but some concepts definitely required more thought and refinement. His favorite contribution to the script is the addition of a foil for the witch – a goblin named Graffle (“Because he’s funny.”).
To prevent his own creative juices from getting dammed up, the well-rounded Malachi enjoys a host of intellectual, athletic, artistic and just-for-the-fun-of-it age-appropriate diversions, including acrobatics on his trampoline, shooting hoops, cavorting with his dog Charlie, pleasure reading (Jon S. Lewis’ “Grey Griffins” and Jenny Nimmo’s “Charlie Bone” series are faves), watching “Phineas and Ferb” and – “when my parents allow” – playing video games.
A budding musician as well, among Malachi’s favorite courses is the Birney school’s “Strings” class, which offers instruction on the cello, bass, violin and viola.
That musical background is also being put to good use in “Hansel & Gretel,” with Malachi and his father contributing an original song to composer Noah Agruss’ score.
Montoya said the experience of working on “Hansel & Gretel” with his son has been a wonderful adventure that has allowed him to experience the same joy his wife has had in sharing her particular talents as a musician and painter.
Malachi echoed his dad’s sentiments, and said he’s looking forward to doing it all over again, but is currently focused on seeing how audiences take to his and his father’s fresh choices in their adaptation of “Hansel & Gretel.”
For Montoya, getting the show up and running at the B Street is just the beginning.
“We now have something that has both of our names on it. I’d love to get it published.”
JUST THE FACTS
What: The B Street Theatre Family Series production of "Hansel & Gretel," adapted by Jerry R. Montoya and Malachi Montoya (loosely based on the story by the Brothers Grimm), with music and lyrics by Noah Agruss
Where: The B Street Theatre B3 Stage, 2727 B St., Sacramento, Calif.
When: Previews at 1 p.m. April 28; opens at 4 p.m. April 28; plays through June 3 with performances at 1 and 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Who: Adapted by Jerry R. Montoya and Malachi Montoya; music and lyrics by Noah Agruss; directed by Sarah Zemach; puppet design by Christopher Cook; set design by Cat Frye; lighting design by Ron Madonia; costume design by Nancy Pipkin; stage management by Lynnae Vana; and featuring Rick Kleber (The Witch), Amy Kelly (Graffle the Goblin), Brittni Barger (Gretel), Brandon McCall (Hansel), David Pierini (Father), John Lamb (puppet operator)
How Much: $18 to $27 ($12-$15 preview tickets)
Running Time: 90 minutes (including intermission)
More Info/Tickets: www.bstreettheatre.org; (916) 443-5300