Letters From Chris Van Allsburg

As a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and former East Sider, The Widow’s Broom author Chris Van Allsburg is no stranger to Festival Ballet Providence (FBP). In fact, his daughter and I forged a dear friendship training together at the FBP School. When I heard FBP would be opening its 40th Season mainstage performances with a book written by her father, I reached out to my friend for advice on the best way to reach Mr. Van Allsburg for an interview. Apparently, his preferred method of correspondence is a handwritten letter. Being partial to analogue communication myself, I decided to conduct this week’s interview via snail mail…

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You studied art at the University of Michigan and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), but not the medium you are most known for (illustration). What initially drew you to sculpting and how does your experience in sculpture inform your illustration?

I chose to enter art school on a whim, an impulse. I had not taken art in high school, so I arrived at the University of Michigan with very poor drawing skills. Convinced that my fellow students drew so well because they were born with gifts I did not posses, I concentrated on sculpture. In doing so I was able to call on skills I had acquired as a young boy building ship and airplane models.

So then, how did your transition into this sort of foreign Author/Illustrator role come about? 

Following my graduation from RISD, I set up a sculpture studio. Because it was not adequately heated in the evening, I needed another place to expend my creative energies. I set up a drawing table in my apartment and drew pictures. These pieces had a narrative quality and I was encouraged to show them to publishers. This lead to the publication of my first book, “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi”. I returned to my sculpture studio when I completed [the book], but gradually over the next 5 or 6 years ended up spending more time writing and illustrating, ‘til finally, I was no longer a sculptor.

Illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Widow’s Broom”

Where did the inspiration for The Widow’s Broom come from?

Sometime in the late 1980s, a young animator who worked at Disney approached me about the possibility of working together. He was involved in developing digital animation, and felt my work might lend itself to reinterpretation using this new technology. We decided which of my titles might be best to use and I think we settled on “Wreck of the Zephyr”. Unfortunately, this young Disney animator lost his job, and the project died.

Some time later he got in touch with me with the good news that he’d found a new job up north in San Francisco. He suggested collaborating once again, but this time wondered if I would write something that showcased the technology. I had seen samples of digital animation, and felt it could effectively present objects as life like beings. I started thinking about household objects that might have a secret life or personality, and was attracted to the possibility of a living broom. This naturally led to the rich folklore about witches and brooms. The original story was more about the broom and was welcomed by the young animator. Unfortunately, he’d changed jobs again and was now at a little place called Pixar that was developing its own stories. So the animator, whose name was John Lasseter, eventually went on to make Toy Story and could not make use of the broom story. I felt it had potential as an illustrated book so rewrote it with the in mind, focusing less on the broom.

Illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Widow’s Broom”

Wow! That’s pretty wild. What was your initial reaction when Misha approached you about making the book into a ballet? 

I had seen enough ballet to know it is not capable of presenting a narrative in specific terms. Absent a libretto, the range of interpretation is, to say the least, broad. So as a storyteller I had some skepticism. Once I accepted the idea that an audience can acquaint themselves quickly with a ballet’s story in the program notes, I was more open to the idea and excited about the staging and choreographing of key moments in the story.

Costume Sketches from FBP’s The Widow’s Broom

 

I think Viktor Plotnikov’s choreography is extremely well suited to this story. How familiar were you with Viktor’s style? Did the production match your vision as it came to fruition?

Widow and Sleeping Witch, Jennifer Ricci and Marissa Gomer, photo by Thomas Nola-Rion,  The WIdow's Broom.jpg
Jennifer Ricci and Marissa Parmenter in The Widow’s Broom

I had seen some of Viktor’s work at Festival and liked it. What I appreciated in all my collaborators was originality and an intent in doing something that was not conventional. My knowledge of ballet was not sufficient for me to be able to envision the production before it happened, but I was happy with what I finally saw.

Several of your books (Jumanji, The Polar Express, Zathura) have been made into films. Did you find the process of creating a ballet around one of your stories to be quite different?

I contributed some ideas about costume and story. Obviously, my relationship to Festival Ballet and the attitudes of Misha and Viktor gave me an opportunity for input that does not exist in the movie business, where rights holders and writers are marginalized by a system that places all authority, even over creative decisions, in the hands of the studio. 

What do you enjoy most about collaborating with the other artists?

Collaboration creates diversity in your imagination. The monoculture of your self-generated creativity receives a catalyst, a stimulation, for ideas that would otherwise not happen.

 

To see The Widow’s Broom at The Vets October 27-29, get your tickets here.

 


 

This post was written by Kirsten Evans. The author is in her eighth season as a Company Dancer with Festival Ballet Providence. She is also the Company PR & Communications Assistant, as well as the writer of a personal blog, Setting The Barre.

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