One of my favorite shows in the whole musical canon is Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors. I love it so much that it was the first thing I directed in high school. It also was something I quoted for every college application I wrote. Also, I just purchased this last night:
My friend, Jesse (who served as puppeteer for Audrey II in our high school production), sent me a link to a video on Instagram showing Vicky Vox performing as Audrey II, dressed fabulously and dominating the stage in a way only a drag queen or a blood-guzzling plant ever could. I was shocked. We saw her expressions; she interacted with the other cast members. She made demands in the middle of a lyric, "Hold this," as she tossed the puppet to someone else. She had attitude that could've come through only about 10% if she had been only the voice. She fully embodied that plant.
At first, my mind rebelled at it. A human playing the plant? But but but... What about puppets? Once that initial reaction faded after about 10 seconds, I started to enjoy myself. I wasn't exactly sure why it worked so well for me. This was the first time I had ever seen the plant portrayed by a human with a face as opposed to a puppet. Of course, when I was casting the production of Little Shop in high school, my friend Joe gave such a riotous performance with his facial expressions, I thought, "It's too bad no one would see this."
It strikes me as so obvious to use an actor to enhance a performance. Director Maria Aberg’s production does use puppetry, but even that is totally jarring in a fun and theatrical way. From what I've seen, the show is soaked in a theatrical nature that is both simple and extravagant. The art design alone makes me overjoyed. The electric, lime green that invades the entire production, clearly showing us everything that Audrey II's tentacles have corrupted, down to the band-aids on Seymour's fingers. It's artistic and it's totally something that would be more at home in an animated show rather than what we may see on stage these days. Color is symbolic. Use it to show a character's change, use it to show family groups, use it to show something that can't normally be detected.
The production has so many instances of "it's so obvious, why hasn't it been done before?" I believe we get stuck as theatre artists in trying to make things complicated or extravagant for the sake of showing the audience where their money has gone. Sometimes surprise, ingenuity, and simplicity are more than enough. Yes, delivering a massive Audrey II puppet is a glorious spectacle, but think of the simpler, "theatrical" ways it can be done. This production, (which I would love to see in person), has served as yet another reminder to not take things so literally. Don't read a script and think you have to deliver the actual, literal thing the script calls for. Whether the script calls for a giant plant, or a singing bus. Use your imagination, damnit! Being forced to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks is part of what makes the theatrical experience especially unique for an audience. TV, Netflix, or movies don't have that. They show us exactly what we're meant to see and our brains don't have to do any work. (Unless the writing is good...) But showing us an image on stage, crafted with unexpected materials, using them in inventive ways creates shock and awe in a good way.
I'll keep trying to be theatrical, and I'll try not to miss the obvious.
Not long after I wrote my last post celebrating the 1 year anniversary of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras, I was catapulted into two new worlds: Neverland and Oz. I’m only just now coming up for air, even while still in the midst of my travels to Oz.
In late January, I directed a production of Peter Pan Jr. for the Worthingway Arts Program in Worthington, OH. I worked with about 30 seventh and eighth graders to put on the show. That’s the cast and crew in the pic above. I’m ridiculously proud of what the students accomplished. And, yes, what I accomplished. Not just as a director, but as a teacher. And as a human.
I was doing my best to prove a point to myself and the students. I wanted to prove to them that a director doesn’t have to be a jerk in order to get a great performance from someone. I wanted to show that silliness and kindness is at the heart of theatre as much as drama is. Drama stays on stage. And the reason that it can stay on stage is that the theatre is safe and hospitable to everyone.
I remember throwing things when I directed my first show. Yes, I was a high school student. Yes, I was immature. But that’s what I was taught. I learned that directors get frustrated and shout and yell and throw things. During Peter Pan Jr., I did my absolute best to protect everyone in the process. I wanted the actors and crew to be physically safe and emotionally safe. At the start of tech week, the crew was confused when I was sitting calmly on stage, not panicking, not looking stressed out of my mind. First of all, I was exhausted. Second, as I told them, “we’re just doing theatre.” And that’s it, isn’t it? We’re just doing theatre.
I don’t say that to belittle the art form that I love so dearly; I say it to get at the core of what we’re doing. We get caught up in tech or costumes or performances or precision, but it’s just theatre. It’s putting a story in front of an audience. It’s a connection between the people on the stage and the people in the seats. That’s all. If you have that, then so what if a transition takes longer than I want it to? So what if Peter Pan or Wendy say a line in strange way. Are they telling the story? Are they connecting with each other? Are they connecting to the audience? Are they having fun? Is that fun palpable? Yes? Great. Boom. Done. It’s just theatre.
It was a meaningful and enervating experience for me. I’m still recovering from it! I would leave the house at 6 am to get to work at 6:30, then would leave work at 3 pm to get to rehearsal at 4 pm until 6 pm. Sometimes I would go home after that! In April, I started going to rehearsals for The Throne of Oz after Peter Pan Jr. rehearsals.
It wasn’t every night; I was glad to only be the playwright and not the director! I wish I could’ve been more involved in the process, but the director, Joe Bishara, and the cast and crew have created a beautiful and epic production! When I write plays for all audiences, I tend to think of writing a Disney or Pixar movie. I try to write comedy for small children and adults. I try to keep the proceedings light and bouncy and silly. With The Throne of Oz, I thought I had written a comedy with a laugh a minute, zany and silly. I was wrong.
Watching the audience, I was confused. They were quieter than I had expected. Then, I realized it’s not a silly comedy. It’s an adventure! It’s not a Disney movie! It’s a Star Wars movie! Silly me. I should’ve known. When I was writing it, I was studying Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens with the Storyclock Notebook. I was trying to figure out how to tell a story with new characters and tons of backstory that could stand on its own. I wanted the new characters to be just as interesting, if not more interesting, than characters from the original story. Tip was Rey. Jack Pumpkinhead was BB-8. Mombi was Kylo Ren. I should’ve known!
I eavesdropped on parent conversations, hearing things like, “she loved it” or “she was over the top for it.” So, I know it was having an effect on the audience. One father even brought his daughter to Joe after a show and said, “She loved it so much, she wants to know how she can be involved in a show.” Joe introduced me as the writer of the play, and her eyes grew to the size of pumpkins. She was in shock. Hopefully, she didn’t think I was L. Frank Baum...
The audience reactions mean a lot to me. Seeing kids come down to interact with the characters after the show, posing for pictures, smiles across their faces, it’s unreal. I can’t wait for more audiences to see the show this weekend. Then, I can finally slow down a little. It’s been wonderful being a part of so much theatre. Next year, I’m directing Singin’ in the Rain Jr. and will hopefully be visiting Baker Street.
My book, Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras, celebrated its one year anniversary of being published in January. I didn’t get to celebrate with too much fanfare since I was preparing for rehearsals of Peter Pan Jr., which I’m directed for the Worthingway Arts Program. I look back at my journals and see the planning of the play version of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras beginning to be created. It really is a situation of the chicken and the egg: which came first, the book or the play?
Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras began as an idea for a children’s book. You can read more about the evolution of the story of a baby duck to a book-loving girl named Penny here. My old journals have characters that were cut from the original version of the play: penguins and a giraffe. Cowgirls don’t ride penguins, they don’t want their tuxedos to get dirty. Cowgirls don’t ride giraffes, they’re too busy knitting scarves for winter. The giraffe existed somewhat to get a “winter is coming” joke in there, but also it’s ridiculous and funny to see a giraffe knitting a scarf worthy of the Fourth Doctor.
As we near the year anniversary of the CATCO is Kids production of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras (March 10), I’m proud of the 9 Theatre Roundtable Award nominations the production received! We won two for acting: Abbie Ogilbee (Jack) and Ben Tracy (Ostrich, et al). It was remarkable to see a production that was written for families and young audiences get so much recognition.
I’m working towards getting Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras its next production. The audiences had so much fun with it, I can’t wait for the next time I get to watch it with an audience!
Of course, most of my energy is focused on Neverland (Peter Pan Jr. opens April 20). And on Oz (My play The Throne of Oz opens May 4). Then, I’ll be heading back to Baker Street.
There’s always another project!