Theater: Beware the Hairy Man

Stage One reinvents ‘Wiley and the Hairy Man’ and brings theater to the children

Oct 10, 2012 at 5:00 am
Theater: Beware the Hairy Man

The Boogeyman, the Golem, monsters under the bed — there are many names for those childhood specters that haunt our nightmares, popping up in hushed tones at slumber parties or around campfires. In 1972, playwright Suzan Zeder added another moniker to this ghostly canon: The Hairy Man.

Based on a folk tale written by members of the Works Progress Administration’s Writer’s Project in the early 1930s, “Wiley and the Hairy Man” tells the story of a 10-year-old boy, Wiley, who must face his fears when he encounters a spooky, in-need-of-a-shave creature. Zeder’s play celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, having been translated into 11 languages and performed across the United States and around the world. For this year’s production, however, Stage One Family Theatre decided they wanted to do something different.

“We approached Suzan about doing music, and she said it was something she’d always wanted to do. But she wanted to work with somebody local, somebody regional, who got the feel of the area and the voice of this part of the county,” explains Hannah Wemitt, director of marketing and PR for Stage One. The theater approached renowned local jazz pianist Harry Pickens about the job, and the musician jumped at the opportunity.

“We didn’t even have to finish the sentence,” Wemitt laughs. “And he was like, ‘Where can I sign?’ Harry is really education at heart. He has had a tremendous life in education; he loves youth education and performance art education. He even worked out his schedule so that he will be available to play some of the performances, which will be really exciting for the kids.”

Wemitt says the theater is particularly excited about the use of live music in this production, since many of their shows use pre-recorded or “canned” music that does not have the same well-rounded effect. “Harry is making himself available, because he’s excited about what it’s becoming,” says Wemitt. “Which is cool.”

Zeder and Pickens have been collaborating, via YouTube and Skype, since March on the production, which includes seven original songs and 15 rewritten pages of text. The amount of new material qualifies the re-imagined piece as a world premiere, and Wemitt says Dramatic Publishing has expressed interest in republishing it, making Stage One the flagship theater that did the first workshop and first production of the show.

“It’s really sparked Stage One to revitalize its new play program,” Wemitt says. “We have done world premieres for our whole history of 66 years, but it’s kind of been dormant for a few years. And this sparked us to bring it back.” Stage One has already commissioned a new work on Robin Hood for its 2013-2014 season, to be written by Greg and Abigail Maupin of Le Petomane, and the theater is in talks with playwrights to develop a piece for the following season about Cassius Clay and his Louisville childhood.

“We’re thrilled to revamp the Amy and Marshall Heuser New Play Development series and get that out there. The teachers are really responding; they’re excited. It’s always kind of scary when you take an unknown title and put it out there for the teachers and the public, but people are really grasping this show,” Wemitt says.

“Wiley and the Hairy Man” is also part of Stage One’s Play It Forward initiative, a corporate-sponsored ticket subsidy program that aims to provide every student in Jefferson County with the opportunity to see a play each year at no cost. The program currently offers tickets to all kindergarten through sixth grade students in the Louisville area, including Southern Indiana. Students up to third grade are eligible to see “Wiley,” while fourth- through sixth-grade students can see the spring production of “Charlotte’s Web.” Last year, 90,000 students attended plays as a result of the program, up from 47,000 its first year, and Wemitt says the organization is hoping to hit 100,000 this season.

“The joke we always have in the office is that nobody really wakes up at 30 and decides they want to be a patron of the arts. It’s usually something that you have a connection with as a child,” Wemitt says. “Everybody has a Stage One story. And so we feel like it is critical for students to see a live theatrical performance at an early age, not just for the entertainment value but also for the value of understanding sense of self, understanding how to have confidence. We feel like theater skills are life skills, and the gateway to the arts starts at Stage One.”

‘Wiley and the Hairy Man’
Oct. 13 & 20
Kentucky Center
584-7777 •
$14.75; 11 a.m. & 2 p.m.