Theatre Preview: You say octopi, I say octopuses

By Kyle Francis

From the man who brought the theatre community such scenes as a prison inmate being dragged through broken glass only to be thrown out a window and abused street children committing crimes comes a play aimed at children! Clem Martini, a playwright often celebrated for darker works such as Control and Illegal Entry takes a break from the macabre to weave audiences a tale of acceptance, friendship and octopuses in his first kids-oriented play, The Secret Life of the Octopus.

“There’s a little bit of a ghetto for writing for young [people] in theatre,” says Martini. “People wonder if you go there, if you’ll ever come back. The fact is though, that you have different stories for different people, and if one expresses that story for young [people], that doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten about or abandoned the other people you want to tell stories too. It is a bit of different approach, though. When you’re writing for children, the first thing you have to ask is if it’s something I can approach children with. So if I were to take my prison riot play to children, they would be like ‘Whoa! That’s too scary, that’s too weird!’”

Martini has been writing for children on and off for decades, his trilogy of children’s books–also about animals–having just been translated into several languages. While Martini’s darker work is his most recognizable, he insists The Secret Life of the Octopus will be completely free of prison riots. Instead, this latest play follows the adventures of two children stuck in detention with an octopus over the course of a year. This may not be a typical detention but Martini promises the visual element inherent in the constant appearance of marine life will impress both young and old.

“I saw it [performed] in a school, and the kids, when they saw the octopus, there was this huge gasp that ran through the audience,” Martini beams, images of octopuses dancing before his dewy eyes. “Looking at an octopus, one learns other things too. We look at an octopus and think it’s kind of grey and slimy and we don’t really think much of it. So we relegate them to the B-list with plankton and stuff, but octopuses are also a crazy kind of smart!”

Indeed, octopuses are speculated to be the most intelligent invertebrate. Maze and puzzle solving experiments prove they possess both long and short term memory. Martini’s octopus, however, is a puppet. Despite this, Martini is no less enthusiastic about his octopus, drawing special attention to the visual stimulation it provides.

“[The visual element] is similar in some ways to European theatre,” Martini analyzes thoughtfully. “The Canadian play tends to be character driven and you go to European theatre and they really concentrate on a ‘visual’ storytelling. I saw another in Belgium that was set in an enormous bowl of soup. I’m not sure that I understood the play, but it was so interesting to watch. I think that this play, in some ways, is similar to that. It has a strong narrative, strong characters, but it is tremendously visual.”

It may not have the violence and disturbing atmosphere fans of Martini have grown to love but The Secret Life of the Octopus has other elements sure to appeal to cultured theatregoers, the least of which is a giant octopus puppet. Devoid of adult themes, with a simple story aimed at children, The Secret Life of the Octopus is accessible to anyone and playful to boot. It’s a great way to get kids interested in theatre, or at the very least, a great way to ask out marine biologists.