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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Classic novel inspires generations through contemporary performance

Texas-based collective Theatre Heroes performs “Call of the Wild: Illustrated Edition” at the Mondavi Center


By MIA BALTIERRA — features@theaggie.org


“The Call of the Wild,” the classic tale of a dog named Buck and his journey from lavish pet to laboring sled dog in the Yukon, is a novel many people grew up reading in school. Despite being written 120 years ago, it remains a story relevant to all ages with themes of self-discovery and perseverance. 

Theater collective Theatre Heroes seeks to keep this story alive and tell it in an innovative way in their touring production “Call of the Wild: Illustrated Edition.” The performance is a one-man show, with a single actor telling the story amid a minimal set of just two boxes against a background of three large electronic screens with various imagery. 

The actor in the production, Noel Gaulin, also helped develop the show and said a major life event spurred the creation of a staged version of the novel.

“When I found out I was gonna be a dad, I wanted to make a show that would last,” Gaulin said, “because a lot of theater shows happen and then that’s it, so I wanted to make something that would be sustainable. I had been working with kids […] and figured out that the youth audience is sustainable. I wanted to make something for older kids, upper elementary [and] middle school ‘cause they don’t get a lot, but they are a great audience because they can handle a lot.”

Gaulin said that he felt “The Call of the Wild” was the obvious choice for a story to stage with a younger audience in mind.

“‘Call of the Wild’ was my favorite book,” Gaulin said. “I think it has everything. It makes you laugh, makes you cry. It’s scary, it’s fun, it’s about a dog — everybody loves dogs.”

The creative process of developing the show took two years before it premiered in Austin, Texas and then started touring across the U.S. Gaulin said that in the process of creating the show, it was important to him to remain close to the original work while still presenting it in a way that felt new.

“The style is on purpose — the one-man-show style makes the audience use their imagination,” Gaulin said. “I wanted to bring back an essence of storytelling, the storyteller-around-the-campfire vibe.”

The three screens have projections that change during the course of the show. The projections include the original illustrations from the novel, as well as historical photos from the time period the story is set in and original drawings from a graphic designer.

“They create the world around me,” Gaulin said. “All sorts of imagery help tell the story [and] introduce characters without a bunch of stuff.” 

Another element of keeping the presentation simple is the set of two boxes. 

“I really liked his use of the boxes,” said audience member Natalia Ricci, a second-year political science major. “Sometimes, he used it to emphasize dramatic things that were happening, and he threw the box down, or sometimes he was shape-shifting the boxes into a sled. He used it and was able to manipulate the item into multiple things.”

During the course of the show, Gaulin also transforms himself, as he takes on around 30 different characters and shifts from human to dog and back again.

“Him portraying the dog was incredible; I didn’t think someone could act as a dog that well without having some kind of Milky White-esque puppet,” said audience member Lou Wagoner, a third-year theater and dance and English double major, referencing the cow puppet used in a recent Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” “From what I had heard about it, I was like, ‘It’s a one-man show of ‘Call of the Wild;’ how is he gonna do that? Oh, he probably has a puppet or something.’ Then he just started howling, himself, and I was like, ‘Oh! This is good; this works.’”

While the show was developed with a young audience in mind, Gaulin says it is a story all ages can appreciate. On April 7 at the Mondavi Center, Gaulin performed to an audience of varying ages.

“Stories are special; they bring people together,” Gaulin said. “There were three generations of people there —  grandpa read this book, too — so bringing people together for this story specifically is special. […] I don’t care who you are; you can’t help but empathize with a dog. That’s important to me.”

After seven years of touring the show across what will be 145 cities, “Call of the Wild” is set to close after next season. Gaulin and his team already have plans to develop another classic novel into a show with a similar model. Gaulin hopes to alternate between this show and a new one, continually inspiring youth around the nation.

“I want to get kids excited about reading; I think this can do that,” Gaulin said. “You know, they still read this book in school. A lot of schools, because of the show, decided to read it. So I think inspiring kids to read and be excited about reading a classic story like this is really important to me. I think it’s really cool that theater can do that. That’s important to me that we are inspiring kids to love the arts.” 

Written by: Mia Baltierra — features@theaggie.org