Adventure Theatre MTC kicks off the new year with its children’s theater production of “Winnie the Pooh,” opening Friday.
Based on the book by A.A. Milne and adapted for the stage by le Clanché duRand, “Winnie the Pooh” is a combination of several stories about the beloved characters living in the Hundred Acre Wood; Eyeore’s lost his tail, and to make matters worse, the gang’s forgotten that today is his birthday. Pooh and Piglet search for a Heffalump, while Rabbit concocts a plan to get rid of Kanga and Roo.
Director Jerry Whiddon says he remembers his second grade teacher reading “Winnie the Pooh” aloud in class. Actor James Gardiner, who plays the roles of Eyeore and Kanga, says he was always a “big fan” of the “Winnie the Pooh” tale, “A Blustery Day.”
“That was always one of my favorites,” says Gardiner.
But it’s these long-standing connections with these classic characters that had Whiddon concerned about staging a production of “Winnie the Pooh.”
“This is a challenge,” says Whiddon. “I’ve been feeling my brain hurting over ‘Winnie the Pooh.’”
“It’s trying to find a balance of bringing what people’s expectations are to the stage, and making it fresh,” adds Gardiner. “As we started rehearsals, I felt trapped by that a little bit.”
In an effort to escape the trap, Whiddon says he’s encouraged his actors to create their own versions of the characters, instead of relying on the distinctive characteristics they’ve grown so familiar with over the years. He’s also steered clear of Disney.
“I’ve stayed away from the Disney cartoons,” says Whiddon. “We haven’t talked about Disney much, hardly at all.”
“It’s hard not to hear the Disney characters in your head,” adds Todd Scofield, who’s playing Winnie. “I’m trying to evoke some of that flavor without moving into imitation.”
For Gardiner, evoking his own flavor has meant avoiding Eyeore’s notoriously somber tone, and focusing instead on the character’s emotions,
“Jerry keeps reminding me to think about that sort of feeling of sadness and resign with Eyeore [and] allowing myself to bring that out instead of letting the voice do it.”
Other than the Disney trap, the cast of “Winnie the Pooh” says they’ve also tried to avoid a pitfall they see far too often in children’s theater: forced morality.
“We did talk about not cramming a moral down their throat,” says Whiddon. “We avoid that like the plague.”
While the cast admits there are lessons to be learned from Pooh and his friends, they also feel the No. 1 priority of children’s theater, as with theater for general audiences, should be to entertain. It’s a notion that’s helped mold Adventure Theatre MTC’s mission as a company.
“That’s a big thing for [producing artistic director] Michael Bobbitt,” says Gardiner. “First and foremost, the most important thing is to entertain ... if they learn something in the process, great, but that shouldn’t be the first thing.”
The cast and crew may have avoided the Disney model, but they didn’t ignore its child-company, Pixar, especially when it came to the show’s ability to reach parents as well as their children.
“It sort of goes off of that Pixar model,” says Gardiner. “Finding stuff that’s going to be entertaining for kids but not grating for their parents. Trust me, if we found the material grating ... we’d do anything we could to not make it grating.”
Since most parents of young children grew up on Winnie the Pooh, Whiddon says he felt it was important that the show was relatable for them as well.
“All of these adults grew up with it,” says Whiddon. “It’s not as if they’re watching something they’re not familiar with.”
If rehearsals have been any indication, then the hour-long show will have parents laughing right along with their kids, and sometimes, even without them.
“We did our first run through for all of the designers ... and ran it from beginning to end,” says Scofield. “There were a number of laughs that would go right over the heads of the children who see it.”
“There are some things that have been happening in rehearsals that I have enjoyed and adults in the room have enjoyed,” adds Whiddon. “It’s so universal.”