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Once upon a time, a Salt Lake City artist teamed up with an 8-year-old boy to tell a story about a little black bird named Blue.
Blue is lonely until he makes friends with a Jolly Troop of birds, who invite him on an adventure. Blue defers at first, because he has bones that break easily, but with the encouragement of his friends, he learns how to be brave.
That's the story of the book "Climbing With Tigers," written by artist Dallas Graham and Nathan Glad, now 9, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition commonly known as brittle bones. The book, published in 2014, launched Graham's Red Fred Project, which is eight books into an initiative to publish stories by a creative kid in every state. A creative kid, that is, who happens to have a rare or critical illness.
Now there's another remarkable chapter of this Utah-born story. Two local theater companies are collaborating to adapt "Climbing With Tigers" into a whimsical stage extravaganza, with live actors performing against the background of eye-popping animations and original music.
'Gank you' • When Nathan Glad and his mother, Rachel, enter the Salt Lake Acting Company's chapel theater, the afternoon's tech rehearsal is halted. That's so a bunch of creative adults playing make-believe can greet the real-life third-grader who inspired "Climbing With Tigers."
Austin Archer, who plays Nathan's character, Blue, shows off his prop glasses, a near match for Nathan's spectacles. "Do you like my branch?" the actor asks, while spinning around on a tree branch attached to the bottom of an office chair. "It's like 'The Giving Tree' took a turn," jokes Graham, Nathan's co-author.
Those are just few of the visual surprises woven through the play's props and sets, which include photographic elements from Nathan's life, like his family's white picket fence, and their home's apple tree and rose bushes, and a pinecone Nathan says he made in kindergarten.
Stage manager Annie Brantley points out changes to the set. It's embedded with magic tricks, she tells him, things that open and close and pop open. "Awesome," Nathan says, and later, after he sees a few of the magic tricks, "so cool."
Nathan's fragility is evident today, thanks to a new wrap on his left arm. To explain how it happened, the 9-year-old tells a heroic story involving a flooded submarine and an octopus. The real story he broke his arm as he was changing out of his pajamas is boring, he and his mom admit.
Rachel Glad estimates her son breaks one bone just about every month. His longest stretch without a break was one month, while once he had six or seven breaks at a time. Over his short lifetime, he's already had six or seven surgeries to insert rods to support his bones.
Even in utero on ultrasound images, Nathan had too many broken bones to be counted, she recalls. She and her husband were advised to sign autopsy forms and to plan a graveside service.
Yet even as an infant, the boy defied the odds. Somehow, he seemed to be born happy and grateful. "His first spoken words were 'gank you,' " according to the bio in his book.
Having his story published, first in the Red Fred book and now as a play, serves to level the playing field with his peers, his mother says. Maybe he can't play rough-and-tumble games as he'd like to, but now the entire third-grade class at Westbrook Elementary will be coming to see Nathan's play at a professional theater company. "It means the world to him," she says. "For me, it is surreal."
Each of the books in the Red Fred series has that pay-it-forward effect, which Graham calls "creative magic." "It's a very soft space we're operating in," he says.
The book offers a tangible achievement for the child, and a lasting voice for the stories. Sales raise money for medical expenses or a cause of the child's choice.
"They're producing something to give to society, producing something that's really sublime and beautiful. That's the power of it.
"Suddenly we are telling a story that really matters."
Clever mischievousness • In the world of professional theater, the range of tools employed to make stage magic is always surprising. But what sets apart the multiple collaborations of "Climbing With Tigers" is a word that jaded theater artists rarely use: inspiring.
The backstage story begins with Robert Scott Smith and Andra Harbold, co-founders of the Flying Bobcat theater company, who commissioned Troy Deutsch to adapt Nathan and Graham's book. After a script workshop, Salt Lake Acting Company signed on to produce the world-premiere production.
Graham's design for the series features graphic images of brightly colored birds against naturalistic photographs of his co-author's favorite places. "We wanted to take that aesthetic and blow it up theatrically," says Deutsch, who graduated in 2005 from the U.'s acting program, and as a playwright is receiving his first regional theater production. (Coincidentally, another of his plays, "Bull Shark Attack," received a workshop last week at SLAC's Playwrighting Laboratory.)
The show's strikingly textured look is achieved by combining live actors with projected animations. That requires the actors, Archer and Smith, to interact with layered, colorful animations, created and coded by digital animation artist Jarom Neumann, a recent Brigham Young University graduate.
Some of the backdrops involve more than 20 layers of images collaged together, says Harbold, who storyboarded the scenes as a way to bridge the communication gaps between what was happening onstage and on screen. "It was a beautiful education for all of us to be able to talk to each other," Fleming says.
Think of actor Johnny Depp's collaboration with director Tim Burton in films such as 1990's "Edward Scissorhands," 2005's "Corpse Bride" and 2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." That's the kind of clever mischievousness and visual aesthetic that informs the storytelling, according to Smith, who plays the Narrator and other characters in the two-actor play.
"It's such a universal story of obstacles and the limits we put in our own way," Smith says. "We're all looking for friendship and companionship."
"It's rated G, but it's not just for children," says Cynthia Fleming, executive artistic director of SLAC.
Adds Smith: "We didn't want to create a piece for kids, but for adults who are kids. We are grown-up adults playing in the kids' sandbox."
Making believe, while making magic • Deutsch expanded the story by adding a sense of time, making the action move throughout a day. He also added Smith's Narrator, who teases the audience while inviting us into the story. The script's dialogue makes the birds in the Jolly Troop into more distinctive characters.
And the production also includes a Who's Who of actors who recorded the Jolly Troop's voices, including Ty Burrell, of TV's "Modern Family"; his wife, Holly, a University of Utah theater graduate; and Sarah Shippobotham, head of the U.'s Acting Training Program.
Even while Deutsch was expanding the story, the playwright says he worked to maintain its ethos. "One of the main messages of the story is that we're capable of more then we think we are," the playwright says. "I think Nathan's message of asking for help is really inspiring."
But all of the theatrical artistry just serves as an elaborate way to bring to life the story of a bird who discovers something about himself while facing his dragons. Or really, the character that Nathan invented called the Thunder Tiger.
"Our goal is to be the grounding force for the project without tarnishing any of the sparks," Fleming says. "This is going to be a really special one hour of all of our lives, basically. When you meet Nathan, you walk away and you feel better and you want to be better."
A boy and Blue, his black bird
A world-premiere production of the stage adaptation of Dallas Graham and Nathan Glad's book, "Climbing With Tigers," created by Salt Lake Acting Company in collaboration with The Red Fred Project and Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory.
The show features actors Austin Archer and Robert Scott Smith and is directed by Andra Harbold. The creative team includes composer Kevin Mathie, digital artist/animator Jarom Neumann, set designer Thomas George, costume designer Rodney Cuellar, lighting designer Jesse Portillo, sound designer Adam Day and stage manager Annie Brantley with Trever Wilson.
The theater company will offer eight free performances for Title I elementary schools and local nonprofits, ranging from Boys & Girls Clubs to the Christmas Box and Ronald McDonald houses, the Angel's Hand Foundation and patients from Shriner's Hospital.
When • March 4-27; 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday
Where • SLAC, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25 adults, $15 children (discounts for groups of 10 or more); 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org
Also • For more information about the Red Fred Project, visit redfredproject.com/our-story. Books, $25, can be ordered on the website or at the theater.