Thursday, February 26, 2009

No Returns, No Exchanges, No Checks!!!

There is way too much stress in this world. A while ago my husband and I waited in line to purchase a few items at a hardware store. The line was longer than we in America like to stand in, and there was frustration building. You could feel it. You know what I'm talking about. Heads begin to look around as if that action will beckon the arrival of another cashier. People begin to throw their hip out and exhale. Loudly. I know because I am usually one of those people. But on this day, I didn't really mind the line.

As hoped for, and most certainly brought on by the body language of the increasingly frustrated customers, a new cashier came to open up another register. Oh joy. We wouldn't have to wait those few minutes longer for "those slow people in front of us". Have you ever noticed that no matter what, the person in front of you always feels like "a slow person"?

But I must move on to the point. I tend to ramble, and I'm really working on that. Where was I? Oh yes, a new line! Choirs began to sing! Rose petals fell from the rafters! And my husband and I were the lucky ones who were called upon to be first in this new line! However, the new cashier looked stressed. Very stressed. Even angry. I don't know what had happened to her that day, but I decided to try and help her out of her funk. Let's call her, Matilda.

Matilda said in a very authoritative voice: "I'm open. No returns, no exchanges, and no checks!!!" That's when my plan went into action. I place my three items down, and pointed to each item, one at a time. I said: "I need to return this, exchange this, and I'll need to write a check for this." A moment of silence. But not for long.

Matilda responded loudly: "I just said: No returns, no exchanges, and no checks!!!" Then the people behind me began getting mad. I realized that I had better get out of this fast before Matilda (or someone about to buy a hammer) exploded or threw something at me.

"I was just kidding", I replied with my most award winning smile. No doubt Matilda would begin laughing and her day could start anew. Well, it didn't happen that way. But it did for others. The lady behind me began to laugh. So did a lot of the other people who heard the exchange. The lady behind me, let's call her Grace, said to me: "I can't believe how stressed out I was! When you said that you needed to return, exchange and write a check I got furious! And over such a little thing! Thank you for making me laugh. I needed it!"

Knowing that my work there was done, and seeing that Matilda still wasn't laughing, my husband and I left the store giggling like two little kids. I felt good. I had brightened someones day. Next time I buy groceries, I'm going to pretend that I want to pay with pennies. That ought to be good for a laugh!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"The Mitten" by Jan Brett is now a Musical!

Jan Brett & Jennifer Kirkeby

L: Marilee Mahler, Stage Manager
R: Sandy Boren-Barrett, Director

Laura Kirkeby, Choreographer

Photos by Bruce Challgren

I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to adapt some remarkable children's books for the stage. One of my favorites was "The Mitten" by Jan Brett. It was produced by Stages Theatre Company last year. Anyone who has read Jan's beautifully illustrated books knows that her readers are instantly transported to the magical settings of her stories.

"The Mitten" was a particularly fun adaptation for me because it is based on the Ukrainian folktale of a young boy who drops his white mitten into the snow. One at a time, various woodland creatures get inside the mitten for warmth until it is ready to burst. The last animal to enter the mitten, the Mouse, tickles the Bear's nose as she snuggles in. The Bear sneezes, and well, I don't want to give away the ending in case you haven't read it yet. :)

When the Artistic Director of Stages Theatre Company, Sandy Boren-Barrett asked me to adapt "The Mitten", she told me that she wanted it to be a dance-theatre piece. We had talked about this concept for a few years, and this seemed like the perfect story for this style. As a result, much of the play was set to music. Composer Shirley Mier began her research by listening to a lot of Russian-Ukrainian music. She truly caught the spirit of the story by using a "Peter and the Wolf" style. Each character had their own instrument and theme.

One of the things that I do for inspiration and relaxation is to take walks. Well, I have two Schnoodles, so my walks aren't always relaxing. Regardless, I remember taking them on a walk after a big snowfall prior to adapting "The Mitten". The snow was untouched and so white and sparkly that it actually hurt my eyes. The trees and bushes were heavily flocked with snow. The sky was endlessly blue. It was stunningly beautiful, and I felt as if we had stepped into a Jan Brett illustration.

As we crunched along through the snow, I watched how excited my dogs were to be outside. I wondered what it would be like to be their size moving through such deep snow. At times, my smaller dog, Sadie, would disappear into a soft snow drift, only to jump out with clumps of snow clinging to her fur. I thought about the different animals in "The Mitten" and how hard it would be for them to survive a long, cold winter. That walk was just what I needed to begin my adaptation.

As you can see from these photographs, the production of "The Mitten" was beautiful. We had an amazing production team and group of actors. Joe Stanley created a set that looked just like the exquisite illustrations in the book. The play was very well received, selling out many shows in the 730 seat theater.

One of the best things about writing a play (and at times the most terrifying) is sitting in the audience watching the production that you have worked on for months, sometimes years, unfold. For "The Mitten", I smiled as I listened to the "ooh's" and "ahh's" of the children. They absolutely loved guessing (and in many cases knowing) which animal was coming onstage next. One little boy sat in front of me holding his copy of the book. Even though he was obviously too young to read, he proudly turned the pages to follow along with the play.

There are other theatres that are interested in doing this production. We were asked many times where people could buy the music CD. Publishers have also asked about it. It is my hope that this musical has a long and happy life.

My next adaptation with Shirley Mier is "The Paper Bag Princess" by Robert Munsch. Auditions are this week, and it will open at Stages Theatre Company on April 17th. Come and see it. It is the original girl-power book!

Besides being an amazing artist, Jan Brett is a teacher's best friend. Visit her website: You will find an amazing array of free activities, coloring pages and projects. She recently started a blog in which she shares her life, her animals, what inspires her, and what her next projects are.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Please Don't Flash the Bunny!

I just finished playing the "Old Lady" in a wonderful production of "Goodnight Moon". Chad Henry did an amazing job of adapting the beloved children's book written by Margaret Wise Brown. Many parents read this book about the Little Bunny who keeps finding reasons not to go to sleep to their children until the book's pages are worn from all of the page turning and love.

I was the only adult in the musical. The average age of the cast was 13. Being the only adult has its challenges, but these youth actors were pros.

The reason that I am mentioning the ages of the cast is because as you can imagine, I felt very motherly towards them. When they got sick I told them to drink more water. When they broke a shoelace, I gave them a new one. When they were too loud in the green room...well, I told them. Over a six-week rehearsal period and a five-week performance schedule doing 9 shows a week, we got to know each other very well.

"Goodnight Moon" was an adorable show visually. It was intentionally designed to look just like the book, and it did. Our mostly young audience sat spellbound for the most part. "He sat at the edge of the seat the whole time!" "She wants to come and see the show again!" "This is our first show, and we'll be back!" "He's never been quiet for a whole hour since he was born!" were some of the many comments that we heard in the receiving line.

We had many first time theater-goers. And with first time theater-goers, mistakes are bound to be made. (Can you feel the tension mounting???)

Most people understand that having a cell phone go off during a movie or live theater production is not acceptable. It is disruptive and rude. I heard a story of an actor who chased the offender with the cell phone out of the theater screaming at him (the offender apparently decided to answer his phone and have a discussion during this actor's scene onstage). Most actors that I know have had similar thoughts, but haven't carried them out.

At the beginning of each of our shows an announcement is made welcoming the audience and then giving them a few simple rules. One of those simple rules is: "Flash photography, cameras and recording equipment of any kind are not allowed in the theater." Seems reasonable to me. Clear, concise and easy to understand.

Let's review the reasons flash photography is not allowed:

1) It blinds the actors. They could fall and break something.

2) It is rude. It distracts other theater goers who might not like a bright flash to occur during their theater going experience.

3) It is illegal. The set designer, costume designer, director, choreographer, writer, prop designer are all artists who have created a piece of art. Copyright laws are broken when someone takes a picture of their work without their permission.

4) Did I mention it blinds the actors?

Even with the pre-show announcement and the fact that it is also written in the program, there are inevitably people who don't know any better. A flash will go off here and there. When that happens, the House Manager politely asks them to stop. This usually works. However, one day we were besieged. It was as if a group of people had carefully planned their attack. Here is what I imagine their meeting sounded like:

MARY: OK. We'll take a few flash pictures during the show. Not too many - we don't want to get caught.

BRUNO: That's right. I just got out of the joint. Food's terrible! I'll sit in the left of the theatre. Mary, you sit in the right.

SPIKE: I'll sit in the middle of the theatre, so they can't get to me. Besides, I still got that warrant out on me.

MARY: Good thinking, Spike! During the finale, take as many flash pictures as you can. I don't see any cops! The car's waiting out back.

SPIKE: Got it!

During our finale, we sang: "Keep a Positive Attitude". As you might imagine, it is an upbeat, happy, optimistic song, and we were all smiling and singing our hearts out. That's when Spike clicked off at least five flash pictures in a row. Bruno and Mary were clicking away as well. I had held it in for as long as I could. But we all have our breaking point. This Bunny's carrot cracked.

You see my photograph. I don't look very intimidating. Actually, I am almost 5'9" and dressed like a...bunny, so I had that going for me. We were all being blinded by the constant flash. The cast kept smiling and singing. But like I said, my carrot had cracked.

I stepped out of the line and toward the audience. I held up my hand like Diana Ross when she sings: "Stop in the Name of Love". I looked right at the perpetrator and shook my head: "NO!" I wasn't smiling. I had lost my positive attitude. I was thinking about the kids. How they had performed through sickness and health, broken shoelaces and ripped pants. Struggled with keeping up at school, and all of the drama that we all went through at that age. And yet, here they were singing and dancing and smiling only to be blinded by Spike.

The flashing stopped. I stepped back in line. I put my smile back on. I finished singing and dancing with the cast.

Did I do the right thing? I felt badly for the 700+ other audience members who weren't taking pictures. But it had to be done. A lesson had to be learned. Hopefully those people who felt compelled to take pictures of the cast won't do it anymore. And if I have saved even one bunny from being flashed, well then, it was worth it.


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