This is our fifth year where our 4H club participated. The kids get together sometime in January to brainstorm out a play, and a couple of the older ones write it out. Then they audition for parts, and spend much of the winter and spring rehearsing. Kim and Jamie serve as the adult directors, but most of it is on the kids.
My role this year was fairly minimal, given that I was at Mid-Range Campus on most rehearsal days and didn’t get back until about halfway through the rehearsals. Mostly I just went home, but toward the end I started showing up. My job was to handle the tech end of things, which was also pretty minimal. Last year’s lighting board operator became this year’s spotlight operator, so I trained her on how to do that – a process that involves about 10 minutes of instruction (“This is how you turn it on, this is how you get the light to change size and shape, this is how you get the colors to change, and that’s how you make the light go away and come back. Now go practice”) and then I just turned her loose. Honestly, it’s not that hard and most of it is just practice. She did a fine job.
Most of the tech was sound, and they did that on their own really. Tabitha and Aleksia gathered together a pile of objects for sound effects – along with a handful of audio files stored in Kim’s iPhone – and other than asking the theater professor on Home Campus to run a couple of cables to plug them into the sound system I mostly stayed out of it. Sound is one of those areas of theater that mystify me, and the less I have to do with it the better the show works.
The rehearsal schedule got pretty crowded over the last couple of weeks, as the show slowly came together. And on Saturday it was showtime!
You should have been there. Really, you should.
This year’s play was inspired by the old Doctor Seuess book, And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. It opens with a couple of judges who are fast approaching their cream puff break, cream puffs being something of an ongoing inside joke with our 4H Players. There have been cream puff jokes in all but the very first production they’ve put on.
Suddenly, in rush four very late 4H kids hoping to have their project judged. But it is too late, and the judges are about to leave when the kids convince one of the judges to hear them out. They have an exceptionally exceptional excuse, after all. Perhaps the judge will show them a little leniency.
This is where it gets weird.
The kids and the judges were all on stage left (the right side of the stage from the audience’s perspective, for those of you not up on your theater jargon). From this point on the stage gets split into two pieces – three, if you count the Foley table way over on the very edge of stage right, where the sound effects were coming from – as the kids on stage left spin an ever-wilder story about the reasons for them being late and as that story gets acted out over on stage right.
Because they had a good reason to be late. You see, there was a guy in the poultry barn who sneezed. Not a small sneeze. A monstrous sneeze.
Except it wasn’t a guy. It was a juggler! Yeah, a juggler!
And it wasn’t just a regular juggler! She was juggling chickens! And she was also allergic to chickens! Another monstrous sneeze! Feathers everywhere!
This is when the kid ran by with five balloons, except it wasn’t one kid with five balloons – it was five kids each with one balloon!
And then they all popped.
That was actually my favorite exchange in the play. “And then they all popped.” “The CHICKENS?” “No, the balloons!”
That was when the cow got loose and ran around. No! A whole herd of cows! The cows of course upset the goats, so much that the goats started screaming and fainting!
In the chaos someone ran into the cart with all the apples and the Super Sticky Caramel, causing both apples and caramel to spill, which, of course, trapped the 4H Royal Court. “We’re royally stuck!” they cried.
And while the Court – and everyone who was helping them – was trying to get free, all that sticky caramel attracted first bees and then, because hey, why not?, a dragon. Fortunately, a knight in shining armor arrived to free everyone from the caramel and head off in pursuit of the dragon, which had by then headed off toward the cream puff stand and was at that very moment roasting all of the cream puffs!
It was the best excuse that the judge had ever heard, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to make her stay around to judge their project. You see, she’d left her dragon in the car and apparently it had now escaped and was eating all the cream puffs and the last thing you want to deal with was a sugared-up dragon, so she needed to go.
Our four late kids were left standing around, holding their pink “thanks for trying” ribbons. “If she didn’t believe us,” Lauren’s character says, “she could have just told us!"
Except that then the other judge comes back looking for the one who just left, because the dragon really is roasting all the cream puffs and that judge needs to do something about this.
Then the juggler runs by, still juggling chickens. And the balloon kids – now with new, unpopped ballons. And the kids looking for their herd of cows. And the one looking for her goats. Then of course the Royal Court parades by, looking for someone who can get caramel out of a sash. And finally the knight arrives, seeking directions to the dragon.
So they go off to join them, since roasted cream puffs sound like a pretty good deal.
There’s a moment of silence and then the judges come back, somewhat worse for the wear having now captured the wayward dragon. Did you know dragons have feathers? Well, they do.
All seems well, until another kid comes running up, apologizing for being late and claiming to have the most exceptionally exceptional excuse ever.
Let’s hear it, they say.
The play went over well. The audience laughed in all the right places, and all of the various sound and lighting cues happened where they were supposed to happen. The actors peaked at just the right time – it was easily the best run-through of the show they’ve ever done. They got all their lines and looked both enthusiastic and happy about them. Well done, troupers!
The judges agreed.
In the feedback session that follows each performance during the Drama Festival they spent most of their time talking about how good a job the kids had done and being impressed by the fact that the play was theirs and not foisted off on them by the adults. They did have a few constructive points to make, of course – that’s their job as judges, to point out things that could have been done better.
Speaking as someone who has spent more than three decades in theater and almost that long as a teacher, however, what I noticed was that those constructive points were what I call “sophisticated mistakes” – mistakes that you wouldn’t expect people at this level to make because of all the things you have to get right even to get to the level where those mistakes are an option. People often fail to realize that progress isn’t about going from error to perfection. It’s about going from basic errors to subtle and sophisticated errors. Sometimes my survey-level students turn in work that has graduate-level mistakes, and let me tell you that is an impressive thing. So three cheers to our 4H Players for operating on that level, I say.
They were awarded blue ribbons, and at the award ceremony later that afternoon they took Top Drama for the third straight year and were invited to perform at the Wisconsin State Fair in August.
Congratulations, actors and technicians!
Update - May 11, 2015
Our friend John recorded the performance, and here it is! Thanks, John!