by Samantha Baird, dramaturg
Every so often, members of the production team on BYU main stage shows have the opportunity to work closely with personnel who were involved in either the creation of the story or part of a previous production. This year’s MDT workshop production of Rump: The Musical is no different. As dramaturg and associate director on the project I had the opportunity to sit down with Liesl Shurtliff, the author of the young adult novel, Rump and ask her a few questions. The interview transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.
Samantha Baird, Dramaturg: How did you transition from the performing arts into writing? I know that while you were at BYU you were in the MDT program. So what got you interested in writing?
Liesl Shurtliff, Author: Well, it was becoming a mother, in sort of a roundabout way, after I had had my first daughter, while in my senior year at BYU. I made it, I finished [my degree] but then I moved away to Chicago and I wasn’t really in a position to pursue any kind of real performing opportunities with this baby, in this new space, with my husband starting a new job. But I’m not very good at keeping still and I really knew that I needed some kind of creative outlet. I found a course for writing for children and it sort of captured my interest. I thought, “You know, I’ll just give this a try and it will be just sort of a fun hobby, while I’m waiting to go back to theater and performing.” But I really fell in love with the writing process and I realized the thing that I really loved about theatre wasn’t necessarily the performing itself, but the development of the story, and the characters, and the story arcs, and the themes. I realized that this really was a better fit for me in many, many ways and so I just kept going with that. Even though I did sort of return to performing for a little bit I kind of realized, “No, this isn’t really where I belong.” I just kept writing and felt that that was my true path. Everything that I learned at BYU in the music dance theatre program, I feel like has aided and influenced my writing, there wasn’t anything lost. It’s not like my degree was a waste. I know it can feel that way for a lot of people, but for me, it didn’t. I feel like it still supports my writing process today. I draw on the knowledge that I gained from those classes. I feel like I hear Tim’s voice in my head all the time saying, “What’s your objective? How are you going to accomplish your goal? What are your tactics?” And I feel like I ask those questions of my characters.” What is it that you want?”
SB: His newest is, “There’s no such thing as a stupid idea, because stupid leads to stupendous.”
LS: Oh, I love that and that’s so true. That’s very true in writing because I feel like everything I write, at least in the first draft, is completely stupid, but it does lead to stupendous. Right? There’s nothing lost, nothing wasted. It all is a stepping stone, it all leads to something. Gail Carson Levine spoke at a symposium at BYU, “Life, The Universe, and Everything,” and she said, “My good ideas are shy. They only come out to play when the bad ones come first.”
SB: Oh I love that!
LS: Yeah, it’s like we have we have to get out the garbage to get to the great stuff.
SB: Yeah, I like that. That’s awesome. So I’m the new play dramaturg and I’m the associate director on this workshop production, which means I’m kind of wearing two hats for this show. How much do you know about dramaturgy?
SB: Great! In dramaturgy we work as the audience’s advocate. I spend a lot of time doing research on the show, trying to make the transition from the real world to the world of the show as seamless as possible for the audience as they’re entering the theatre. One of my favorite things, one of the reasons I love dramaturgy, is I love research. What kind of research do you do for your books? How long do you spend researching before you start a book or do you just jump right in and research as you go?
LS: I do a little bit of both. For sure I go to the most original source material of the fairy tale that I can find. Of course, we know that most recorded fairy tales are not in their most original form because they come from oral tradition. So I’m finding I will actually go to several different versions of the story. I will read different interpretations of the story, like Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes. So I do quite a bit of research on the fairy tale itself specifically that I’m working on, and the meaning of fairy tales in general. I will read as many versions of the fairy tale as I can get my hands on and reasonably read, whether it’s picture book or novel form. That’s harder with certain fairy tales than others. There’s not a ton of Rumpelstiltskin retellings, so it was easier for me to delve into those retellings. I want to make sure that what I’m producing is both paying homage to the traditions of that fairy tale but also making it completely new from what’s been done in the past. I think probably Rump, and maybe Grump right behind that, does that the best out of all my fairy tales. It is a completely wildly different interpretation than you see in most any retelling, but I think that’s just one of the reasons why it’s been my most popular fairy tale. So yeah, lots of research along the way, but always trying to stay true to the message that I feel I have to share that might be completely different from any other version of the story.
SB: I really enjoyed reading Rump because as part of my research for this production, I read a bunch of different versions of Rumpelstiltskin also. It’s very, very different, but it stays true to the story enough that you think, “Oh, this is kind of a hidden story that we never thought about.” So, why Rumpelstiltskin? I know you mentioned in your author’s note at the back of the book that your name was not as common growing up and you wanted to do a retelling into, “What’s in a name?”. I’m curious, why this story? Why not others that might have a different name theme?
LS: Well, honestly, the genesis of the story actually had nothing to do with Rumpelstiltskin. It was about names. I was actually working on another story and I thought about creating a world where names were really powerful, where they determine your destiny and that’s actually when I thought of Rumpelstiltskin. I think my brain very naturally went to Rumpelstiltskin, because it was one of my favorite fairy tales. Even as a child, I loved that fairy tale, even though maybe I didn’t totally get it. I thought it was fascinating. I thought it was kind of creepy and it was magical and mysterious, and I think children are very drawn to those things. So actually, you know, even though my mind went there, as an adult, I wasn’t sure I completely remembered how the story went.
So that’s what I did, you know, went back to it. I looked at it with more adult eyes, and the eyes of a writer interested in writing, retelling, and I started to see all these blank spaces and a story, particularly with regards to Rumpelstiltskin. The story is called Rumpelstiltskin and yet we know next to nothing about him. We don’t know where he comes from. We don’t know how he learned to spin straw into gold. What’s his connection to the miller’s daughter? Why does he come to help her? What’s this bargaining thing? Why is he bargaining with her? Why does he ask for her firstborn child? Then, of course, what’s so significant about his name? What’s the significance of his name, that when she says it, you know, there’s different versions. He either tears himself in two, or he flies away on a cooking spoon, or he disappears. There are, I think, very reasonable answers to these questions within fairy tale academia and it’s fascinating. It makes complete sense within the world that this fairy tale was told and created, but in our world today, in our culture and belief, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t quite translate.
So I wanted to tell a story that would be more on the level of kids today and how they, how I, and how a lot of people view the world. A lot of people thought that he was a demon and probably wanted to eat the baby and that was a real belief in medieval times. We don’t believe in those things today, mostly, but these stories still capture our fancy and attention and the purpose of a retelling is to take something that’s familiar, and resonates with that, but then make it new and meaningful in a way that makes sense today.
SB: I love that you make him a young child, instead of, like you said, the creepy demon, from the older versions. But I mean, the story came from the Grimm Brothers. So…
LS: Yeah, exactly.
LS: Well, for sure, the easiest part, I think, is getting the initial ideas and concepts, when you get an idea that you feel a lot of energy with. I definitely felt that when I got the idea for Rump. I had this world where names are your destiny, and that led me to Rumpelstiltskin. I considered it and his name and thinking about, you know, what if he didn’t know his whole name? We never hear it throughout the entire story, except at the very end. What if he himself didn’t know what his name was and under what circumstances would that happen? That’s when I sort of developed the opening scene of his mother dying before she could get out his name and that just felt like a magical gift. It feels like it comes out of nowhere, it’s free. It doesn’t take hardly any effort at all to come up with those ideas. But then, as I got going, and I got further along into the story, I realized it’s not enough to have one or two great ideas, you have to have like 100. Writing a novel is one that requires constant inspiration and ideas and problem solving. So for me, actually, the hardest part is writing that first draft and carrying that energy all the way through to the end of the story. So just carrying that sort of, I call it an energy wire, that has to carry throughout the whole entire story, the story arc, you don’t want it to fall flat at anytime, and that requires an enormous amount of effort. A lot of rewriting a lot of revising. So, to me, the writing that first draft is the hardest part. It’s, it’s extremely taxing.
SB: Oh, I’m sure. So I’m curious, because I haven’t actually asked Tim. Who approached who about adapting Rump into a musical? Was that our end? Or did you contact Tim? And what are you most excited about seeing your book on stage?
LS: Tim approached me and I was thrilled that he did. You know, we’ve been connected on Facebook for many years and he reached out and asked if I would be interested in this and I was so excited because I’ve been approached by other people about this for either stage, or film, and it’s always a little bit nerve-wracking because you want to see that happen, right? You want to see your book come to life on the stage or on the film, but you want it to be done well. You don’t want to turn it over into the wrong hands and so I was always a little bit timid when dealing with people. But when Tim approached me, I was like, heck, yes, absolutely. Tim is brilliant, I would trust him with anything. I’ve watched his work over the years, both when I was a student at BYU and then beyond, watching him direct. I think he’s enormously talented and skilled. So I handed that over with complete trust and it felt so natural and right, like that he would he would care for it and do it justice. So I am more than thrilled to see this come to stage. I know it’s in a workshop kind of phase, but I hope that we’ll see other things come of it perhaps. I’m just nothing but excited to see it all come to life. And every time he presented an idea to me, it just felt like yes, that’s so brilliant, that’s so perfect. When you talk about like the beatboxing/a capella music style I just thought, “Yeah, that’s so perfect. It just fits.” So I feel like he just gets it you know, and that’s what you want. Anytime someone is working with your work, you just want to feel like they see your vision and they know what to do with it. And Tim absolutely does. I just I couldn’t be more happy about it.
SB: It’s going to be so much fun. So not to take up too much of your time, I just have one last question for you. What’s next for you? Are you considering adding more to your (Fairly) True Tales series? Are you adding more to your Time Castaways series? Are you doing something else?
LS: I’m in the middle of writing the third and final book and the Time Castaways trilogy and that has been completely different adventure from the (Fairly) True Tales. I get asked a lot if I will return to the fairy tales and I might, but I definitely felt like I needed to take a little break and branch out. I have a few other projects that I have sort of waiting in the wings that I would like to turn my attention to, but it’s very possible I will go back to the fairy tales. I think more than anything people have asked me about Goldie. She’s a character in Red which is the third book in the fairy tales and everyone asks me about Goldie. “Are you gonna write Goldie? Are you gonna write Goldie?” And I’m thinking about it. I’ve always said, “I don’t have an idea for her yet. I feel like I said everything I needed to for her in Red.” But recently I’ve kind of gotten a few sparks that I think could lead me somewhere so we’ll see, no promises, but we’ll see.
SB: Well, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else that you wanted to share with our audiences?
LS: No, you asked great questions. I’m just so excited to see this all happen. It has just been a dream come true for me.
SB: It’s gonna be really fun. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person. Thanks so much for meeting with me today.
“Liesl Shurtliff grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the mountains for her playground. Before she became a writer, Liesl graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in music, dance, and theater. Her first three books, Rump, Jack, and Red, were all New York Times bestsellers, and Rump was named to over two dozen state award lists and won an ILA Children’s Book Award. Her latest, Grump, offers a fresh twist on the tale of Snow White. She lives with her family in Chicago, where she continues to spin fairy tales.”