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A Nighttime Survival Guide Debuts at Boise Contemporary Theater

Original play combines childhood friendship and Japanese monster puppets


It's rare for Matthew Cameron Clark and Dwayne Blackaller and to work as closely as they have for their newest creation, A Nighttime Survival Guide. As Boise Contemporary Theater's artistic director and associate artist/education director, respectively, the two haven't had time to collaborate on building a production from scratch since 2005. This play, they said, feels fresh in many ways.

"The writing itself is new. This is the first time I've co-written so closely with someone," said Blackaller.

In the script's early stages, Blackaller and Clark would open a shared Google Docs document and hammer the script out at the same time.

"You could see each other's cursors and watch each other type," said Blackaller. "So he could see the line I was writing, and write and respond simultaneously. It was a very energizing way to write, going to Denny's late at night and sitting over coffee, watching the script crank out."

That image is mirrored in the play, when the two main characters, Verne and Aki, first encounter one another looking through a transparent mock-up of a laptop.

"Face-to-face and 4,865 miles apart," Blackaller explained.

At its most basic level, A Nighttime Survival Guide is a story about two 11-year-old children (played by adult actors) and their conflicts with growing up. Aki, played by Carie Kawa, lives in the small village of Akaigawa on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan. Verne, played by Blackaller, lives in windswept Arco.

Blackaller and Clark wanted a play they could bring their children to, a rarity at BCT.

"[We] stumbled on this idea of these two kids, on either sides of the world, encountering these creatures," said Clark.

He and Blackaller drew inspiration from Japanese legends of Yokai, which encompasses all supernatural creatures, including the malevolent, the good-natured and mischievous.

"There are countless Yokai. Japanese folklore is rich with all kinds of opportunities for monsters," said Clark.

Boise artist Bill Carman, known for his surreal paintings, was an early choice to design puppets to serve as the Yokai.

"I didn't have the time when they called me, but I couldn't pass up monsters," he said.

Carman drew his vision of the reptilian, cucumber-loving Kappa--a creature said to lure children into deep waters to drown--as a short puppet with webbed feet and hands.

"Bill's work always has some weird, strange, muddy edge to it, in a really exciting way for me," said Clark. "It's dark and strange and playful at the same time."

Akaname, the "filth licker," haunts children who don't clean their bathrooms. Carman imagined a large, hairy beast with a tongue spooled around a broom-like staff. On stage, it stands at an immense 7 feet tall.

"I kept in mind that I didn't want to make the monsters too brutal," said Carman. "That's not really the place I come from with my work. I can do things that are sort of scary, but they have this humourous side, because humor is a big part of the my work. I think that's what these characters represent to me."

While the play is accessible to children, its writers stress they wanted to keep the story free of the squeaky-clean motifs that dominate children's television.

"There are some themes in this play that are big themes," said Blackaller. "Part of the test we went through is, if you go through the play and you're entirely dry-eyed or stoic through the entire thing, or if you don't have a moment of surprise, you're in trouble."

They wanted something adults could enjoy, as well.

"The best analogy is a Pixar movie," said Clark. "There are plenty of people that go see a Pixar movie that aren't there because they're taking their kids to see it."

With this play, Blackaller and Clark are taking some big risks, weaving dance, puppetry and musical elements.

But to bring those conceptual ideas to life, the production had to incorporate some complicated moving parts. Elaborate costumes were designed by Star Moxley. Dance segments were put together by Balance Dance Company Artistic Director Leah Clark. The stage itself does heavy lifting; an expensive arcing bridge designed by set designer Mike Baltzell recreates the curvature of the Earth between the two children.

"They stay distant from each other, essentially for the whole show," said Blackaller. "The distance between them is a big part of what we're playing with."

When Carman's puppets take the stage, they do so operated by three silhouette "characters," who serve as equal parts puppeteers, crew members and dancers.

"Puppetry is a bit of a spectrum in the play," said Clark.

Even though it has the largest budget of BCT's season, it became apparent A Nighttime Survival Guide would need more funding.

"In order to pursue this particular idea, we knew it was going to take more resources than a typical show here," said Clark.

Before a $10,000 Kickstarter goal was reached, Clark and Blackaller had nervously crossed their fingers. Asked how the play would be different without the extra funds, Clark said it would affect the play as a whole.

"It probably doesn't boil down to a particular thing ... but as we go into the final stage, new ideas as they come, it would limit us in how we're able to pursue that, because we'd be out of money," said Clark.

By the Jan. 19 Kickstarter deadline, 171 backers had contributed $11,172, bringing the campaign to its tipping point and providing extra funding for the project. But that doesn't mean it's home free yet; Blackaller and Clark will also have their fingers crossed before opening night, Wednesday, Jan. 30.

"We want a lot of people to see our work," explained Clark. "But in order to do that, we're just trying to make the best work that we can, that excites us the most, as opposed to trying to guess what everyone else wants--that's kind of a losing proposition."

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