Stealing Treasure

Posted in Rehearsal, Summer 2009, Youth Theatre on June 1st, 2009 by mtrainor

Here’s some insight into how Nutshell Playhouse (writer/director Don Jordan and actors Matt Colviello, Alexia Trainor, Wendy Walraven and Mike Trainor) create their theater shows for children:

Don says, “Okay -- try this, Marx Brothers style …”

Matt, Wendy and I are three pirates looming over a pile of golden treasure. Matt grabs a big handful of treasure and stuffs it into his bag. Simultaneously, I grab the handful out of Matt’s bag and stuff it into my bag. At the same time, Wendy grabs the treasure from my bag and stuffs it into her bag. This continues until all treasure is plundered. Satisfied looks all around.

We check our loot. Matt and I are confused. Wendy seems happy.

“Make sure your hand goes into the bag at the same time as the one you’re stealing from … so when they go for another handful, you’re putting the treasure into your bag …”

You’ve seen these riffs before, for sure. They show up in everything from Loony Tunes cartoons to Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges.

Don gets a big kick out of these gags, and choreographing them. This one becomes kind of dance-like and stylized. It’s a celebration of this old joke, and of the style.

It comes out naturally. A typical rehearsal involves reshaping the show in some way -- all in good fun. Don’s script hits all the plot points, and the actors and Don come up with riffs by ad-libs and goofing around (I wouldn’t call this part of the process “improv” -- that would make it sound somewhat structured, which it isn’t). Someone does something funny, we keep it and tune it. That’s it. Or someone is inspired by someone else’s ad-lib and it grows from there.

Acting in these shows, I like becoming acquainted with this kind of humor. The jokes play with your perception -- like the mirror gag in the vid below. They’re not just “jokes for children” either.

The beauty of using this style for children’s theater, I think, is 1) kids are seeing these great jokes for the first time and 2) parents get to rediscover this style of humor, and the love of it.

This is in addition to the original music, mime, puppets, clowning and great characters that appear in these shows, which I hope we’ll touch on later.