At Home With Mary Pope Osborne
The author’s house is a hub of creativity
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane
Many people are surprised to hear that Mary Pope Osborne has made a home in Great Barrington for more than a decade; others aren’t so. It’s not unusual to spot her at Rubi’s, or at the farmers market, or strolling down Main Street with her husband Will. Beyond south county, she often loses herself on country roads, driving up Route 71, over to Hillsdale, down to 41 in West Stockbridge, through Stockbridge and Tyringham, into Monterey then back home. “It levels out my mind,” she says.
And, most likely, she will stop for a while somewhere—a café, an eatery, a library—with laptop in hand. “I acquired the custom in New York City when we lived in so few rooms, I would go out into the world and write. So I do it here, everywhere,” notes Mary, creator of the best-selling children’s chapter series Magic Tree House, whose main characters, Jack and Annie, travel through time, engaging in adventures with characters and events both real and imaginary.
Although Mary also has a home in Goshen, Connecticut, the Berkshires is where most of her friends and family live. She keeps a quiet workspace in one end of their home on Castle Street. She is sitting at a table, and in front of her is her latest book, Hurricane Heroes in Texas. There’s also a copyedited manuscript of the forthcoming Warriors in Winter that awaits her review, as well as the art. And she’s researching the narwhals of Greenland for her 60th Magic Tree House book.
But it’s the transformation of Magic Tree House books to the stage that has created a different way of experiencing her stories. A mini-musical, ”Showtime with Shakespeare: A Magic Tree House Adventure,” based on the book Stage Fright on a Summer Night, is touring with Berkshire Theater Group’s year-round program, BTG Plays! It will go to 22 Berkshire elementary and middle schools, Chicopee Library, and The Eric Carle Museum. Some 5,600 copies of Stage Fright will be given to all students at the performances, through Osborne’s Classroom Adventures Program. (The program has gifted children over half a million Magic Tree House books in all.)
As if on cue, in walks Will with Mary’s sister, Natalie Pope Boyce, who lives in Stockbridge. Right behind them are good friends and musical partners Jenny Laird and Randy Courts. The room fills with laughter and casual conversation. Jenny is a playwright, and husband Randy is a composer and lyricist. Will is an actor, author, and lyricist, and Natalie has authored more than 40 nonfiction Fact Trackers companion books. (“Natalie does it completely on her own,” says Mary. “I don’t even read half of them; she doesn’t even read my books. We are just in these parallel lanes working like horses.”)
The Osbornes have a third house, “in the country,” as Will wryly puts it, a five-minute drive on Alford Road. But this family home on the Hill is the hub; it has even seen visits from Random House and Lionsgate. The latest big news is that Lionsgate has bought the rights to develop the first Magic Tree House film, based on the first four books. Will and Jenny have written the screenplay; Mary and Will will be executive producers. “A lot of fans wanted to do the movie,” says Mary, “and we held off until a top executive came to our home here.”
And it is here, on the front porch, where Will, Randy and Jenny began creating the first Magic Tree House musical, the summer that Mary and Will moved in, in 2004. “We chose the book that we thought was the most inherently theatrical, Christmas in Camelot,” says Will. “It has dancing fairies and spells and giant horsemen at night.”
The Broadway-style musical premiered at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, Connecticut, in 2007, then toured 54 cities with a cast of 12. Inquiries started coming for classroom productions, so they hooked up with Music Theatre International (MTI) and created musicals that are 30 to 45 minutes long, with up to 30 roles. The soundtracks, sung by local kids, were recorded in Todd Mack’s Off the Beat-n-Track studio. They also created one-hour musicals for Theatre for Young Adults (TYA), performed by a small group of professional actors for younger audiences.
“We are so blessed because she’s such a good writer and the story always is so beautifully structured,” says Jenny, who also writes the musicals with Will. “Mary has that theatrical voice, so we can bring it out more.”
Mary’s own childhood remains vivid. She loved to read, loved to run with her imagination. She and her siblings always played outdoors. “Everything was play. My fingers were characters. The geese would come alive. Everything would just be animated.”
Bringing her stories to the stage captures children’s imagination, motivates them to read, and allows them to experience the performing arts. Mary gets to be a part of the process when the team presents a work in progress—in their family home. “When she has a suggestion,” says Will, “it inevitably makes it better.”
Stage Fright was first commissioned by Orlando’s Shakespeare Company. “Hamilton is a rap opera, I guess you could call it a hip-hop opera,” says Randy, who composes the music. “We took that idea and ran with it because we were writing this for inner-city kids and introducing them to Shakespeare.”
They’re working on another production, with the Emerald City Theatre in Chicago. A Big Day for Baseball is about Jackie Robinson, the first African American Major League baseball player. At his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, some in the crowd booed. “Jack and Annie experienced first-hand racism before the civil-rights movement,” says Mary, “but Jackie Robinson kept calm and dignified. It was a great lesson for them.”
Berkshire Magazine and the Norman Rockwell Museum present “Mary Pope Osborne and Her Magic Tree House Team on the Art of Storytelling,” Thursday, Jan. 10, 5:30–7 p.m., at the museum. nrm.org