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 Montpelier Magazine

Children's Playshop delights with a decade of fairy tales and childhood favorites

Story by Pam Brock and Allison Mall ('04)
Photos by Diane Elliott ('00) and Holly Marcus ('03)


Shakespeare and Moliere have no place among the storybook creatures of JMU Children's Playshop. These fanciful beings have muscled aside the literary greats to take center stage and delight kids for a decade of summertime fun.


IN SUMMER, WHEN PROFESSORS ARE AWAY OR DISTRACTED BY REASEARCH, ALL THE FANCIFUL CREATURES OF THE THEATER COME OUT TO PLAY. That's when crafty kitties and fairy godmothers preen luxurious whiskers, iridescent wings or newly sprouted fuzzy tails. They assemble in the green room with bunnies, ganders, handsome knights and other whimsical beings to don capes and elf shoes and admire one another's floppy ears, webbed feet and ... ... gigantic fannies!

These exaggerated body parts are a dead giveaway that JMU theater has crept far from the classic faculty-directed Tennessee Williams, Molière and Shakespeare of the academic year's main stage and the edgy, student-mounted experiments of Theatre II.

From high art to rear ends, the transition to summer theatrical fare is quite a drop. But it has fallen right into the clutches of dozens of squirming, chattering, clattering, wriggling, whispering 5-year-olds who take 30 minutes to trudge off the yellow school bus, shuffle in and out of the bathroom and clomp up (and down and up again) the risers to their seats before show time. Their arrival is just as big a production as the show they've come to see.

Then, when the house goes black and the stage lights come up on the antics of Puss In Boots, the magic of theater transfixes them, mid-impulse, eyes wide, jaws dropped.

"Hey!" a child exclaims and points, then loses his thought, as furry Molly Hood ('03) uncurls as Puss under a spotlight.

"Oooooooooooooo," rises in a chorus as Princess Laura Riley ('03) in a shimmering green velvet gown and sparkling crown crosses the stage in a series of smiling pirouettes. "She's prehhhhhhhhhty."

Fleeting moments of fright, squeals of glee, furious chatter and lots and lots of laughter come and go throughout the play.

"Ohhhhhhhhh, loooooooook!" A lingering cloud of colorful smoke coils around Ogre P.J. Maske ('03) as she turns into a lion.

For the past decade, Children's Playshop performances of fairy tales and other well-known works of children's literature like Charlotte's Web and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse have enthralled thousands of area children and thoroughly pleased their parents. Area elementary schools bus in entire grades for exclusive dress rehearsal showings, and family minivans open their doors on show nights and for matinees to disgorge extended clans and bunches of playmates on the doorstep of Theatre II. Voted the 2002 Best Live Theater Venue by the readers of the Daily News-Record, the heralded Playshop marked its 10th-anniversary season this year with its traditional summer shows along with additional off-season productions and classroom appearances.

Actor Krissy Callahan ('03), who played Danielle, Harcourt and the Harvester in Puss In Boots, explains the secret to this steadily increasing success. "There's a Bill Buck formula for children's theater. There's a Big Butt Theme -- complete with crashing cymbals and [chickabooming] hips."

The hindquarters contagion sweeps into the costume shop, where designer Kathleen Conery proclaims,  "Costuming a children's show is liberating. There's more color and fun -- and padding. There are big butts. Children's theater is one of my favorite things to design. I think, 'if I were a kid [pointed look], what would I laugh at?' Polka dot underwear!" she squeals.

The purveyor of this strategically unrefined entertainment is Playshop founder and director William J. Buck, who also directed Puss In Boots, the first production of the 10th-anniversary season. Buck, too, is, for all practical purposes, one of theater's summer creatures -- part Eeyore, with his touch of glum pathos, and the rest Yoda to his band of theatrical players -- finding the time to lose himself in his craft only during academia's intermission.

"We make a big deal for the kids. Special effects. Costumes. Lights. Colors. The whole production is a big deal," he admits, appearing half embarrassed that, even as the dignified year-round director of JMU's School of Theatre and Dance, he is having so much fun. "A lot of universities don't have children's theater because it's not considered high art. I find that the older I get the more interested I am in seeing people enjoy their lives."

High art or not, while Buck's Big Butt Theme makes perfect comedic and child development sense, he has engineered an experience that provides textbook educational value for his players as well.

"Children are definitely the most responsive audience an actor can perform to," says Maske, the Ogre in Puss In Boots. "You can tell in a matter of seconds if they're responding. They tell you. They squirm and talk more to each other. They talk to you on stage. Or they are completely engrossed. They'll make eye contact and stare you down. If I'm not being engaging enough, I know to bring it up a notch, do more with my body or give it more energy. They are the most appreciative too. There's so much energy involved in the whole entire thing."

A child audience, the players learn, also has its own rules of decorum. According to theater professor and perennial Playshop director Pam Johnson, it's part of the plan. "At the Playshop you can see the children actually participating. A TV or movie screen does not acknowledge their presence. Here they can influence the play."

  "Some kids point you out when you're hiding from the bad guy on stage," Hood says. "I'll have to stick my head out and tell them, 'Shhhh!'"

"Some will help you," says Riley. "They'll tell you, 'oh, run, run!'"

Audience participation is a creative challenge for the actors, Johnson says. "They learn to stay committed and focused on the world of the play and yet field whatever the audience throws at them. That's pretty exhilarating."

As players hone their acting skills on this tough audience, they also project Buck's Playshop philosophy. "Children and their parents have always felt comfortable coming to our shows because we choose shows that have positive messages and that show the empowerment of children," he explains. "Bullies, witches and monsters are always shown to be the ridicu-lous creatures that they are."

So while goofy witches and absurd villains inhabit the fringes of Children's Playshop and provide the perfect dramatic foil for lessons about good and bad and inner strength and courage, it is cagey kitties like Puss and good-natured dupes like his master Claude who triumph.

Junior Kevin Murphy pauses from testing the trapdoor on the fireplace set for Puss In Boots' castle scene and draws himself up into a hopeful bundle of nerves to demonstrate. "I'm Claude, Puss' owner. I'm kind of a coward, but a good coward. Puss teaches me to stick up for myself and be brave," he says.

"I'm good and I help others," Hood explains, "but I'm also crafty. If I help Claude live in the castle, then I get to live in the castle too."

"And I'm the goofy, good-natured incompetent king," pipes up senior Andrew Ballard, as he helps adjust the bridge for the outdoor scene.

Maske the Ogre turns reflective while stitching away in the costume shop. "It was cool that the first direction I got was that the villain needs to make kids feel empowered. Our villains should be goofy and ridicu--lous. I talk in a really ridicu-lous voice; I'm small and hunched over; I walk silly. I have a big stomach and a big butt."

Buck insists his philosophy is based entirely on commonsense principle and not on any traumatic knuckle-sandwich episodes in his childhood. "I don't like bullies," he announces with a practiced pout. "We take these people too seriously. We give them too much power. They're ridicu-lous after you look at them. I recently went to my high school reunion. I saw people who seemed so intimidating in high school, and now they're bald and pathetic. Characters who are evil? We make them look bizarre."

Buck arrived at JMU in 1992, just as Dinner Theatre was closing its 15-year run, and began looking for another summer endeavor. "We wanted to reach out to the community," he says, and Playshop was the answer. The program is not a lavish affair, but a small, self--sustaining enterprise, with ticket admissions and contributions from local pediatricians covering the cost of costumes, sets and stipends for the cast, who double as the crew. This intimacy makes for some poignant comic moments. "There's something about seeing a lovely young actress dressed like a rooster sweeping popcorn down the aisle that you just never forget," Buck says.

Most of Playshop's actors appear regu-larly on JMU's experimental and main stages throughout the year, and they come from all of the university's academic programs. Fewer than half are theater or dance majors, making Playshop a production reflective of the entire student body. Epitomizing this, Johnson put 83-year-old junior Betty Gravett in the role of the Fairy Godmother in the season's second production, Cinderella.

"I knew she would occupy every moment of the role and bring this disarming honesty to the whole world of the play," Johnson says. "The minute Betty walked on stage, I knew she was OK. When Cinderella told the Fairy Godmother she was beautiful, Betty sashayed right up to the audience and replied, 'Thanks, it took a lot of doing.' And when Betty cradles a very tired Cinderella, again she speaks directly to the audience: 'Your stepmother can do nothing to hurt me.'

"The children believed and trusted her," Johnson says. "After the show, at autograph time, her line of children was queued up to Staunton."

Since Buck's arrival at JMU, he -- along with a tolerant faculty -- have pined for facilities appropriate to the university's highly regarded School of Theatre and Dance. That includes Playshop, which has won critical acclaim to go along with its popularity. Last year, Playshop's Miss Nelson is Missing was performed at the 2003 Southeastern Theatre Conference Children's Theatre Invitational Festival. The original script written for the Playshop's production of The Velveteen Rabbit was published by New Plays for Children.

To Buck's delight, last year's voter-approved Virginia Obligation Bond will provide most of the funds for the future Dorothy Thomasson Estes Center for Theatre and Dance. The center, named for the 1945 Madison College graduate, will be built on the corner of Main and Grace streets. Her widower, Ed Estes, earlier this year gave $2.5 million to JMU to help fund the center.

When the Estes Center is complete, Playshop will vacate the infamous Theatre II, a former poultry hatchery complete with pitched concrete floor and drains. Buck looks forward to the day when the Estes Center will welcome back this present crop of players from successful careers in theater. They'll join others who got their start with Playshop.

"My first professional gig after JMU was with Theatre IV, a touring children's theater company out of Richmond," says Bonnie Estes ('02). "Since then I've completed numerous regional theater contracts, the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun in the title role, and directed professional children's theater shows and several children's workshops."

"Children's theater makes performers very aware of the audience, their needs, their understanding," says Tom Reed ('98), an actor in the Milwaukee/Chicago area. "The scope and breadth of the imagination that actors, designers and audience members can breathe into an old favorite is limitless."

"Children are the most honest audience you could ever hope to play to," says senior Keith Foster. "They have no qualms in letting you know the truth. Nothing reminds you how wonderful theater is like the complete adoration of a child's laughter."

And, as Playshop students and alumni show, the audience is the true test of any performance well, um, reared on academic principles.

A peal of children's laughter ricochets around the theater as Puss brandishes his walking stick and pokes the cowardly Claude in his quivering, cowering, conveniently proffered behind.