Category Archives: Flight of the Dodo

Directing Theatre for Children

The Mystery of the Pirate Ghost received a rousing audience response on opening this past weekend and I am so proud of the thrilling work of my cast and crew. Hearing the squeals of delight and excitement from the young patrons in the house gives an incomparable sense of accomplishment. I have found, in my short career at Lifeline, that creating theatre for children is a very unique joy and challenge, with deep rewards for a story well told. For me most recently, the addition of a child of my own in my life has made a deep connection to the work.

My first directing gig ever was in the spring of 2006, directing Christina Calvit’s adaptation of Kipling shorts titled Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and other “Just So” Stories. I remember how thrilled I was at the honor and opportunity to helm the ship for one of Lifeline’s prized production slots. I also remember a terrifying sense of dread that I wouldn’t really know what I was doing, that I wouldn’t be able to form a rehearsal process to inspire the actors or guide a creative process for the designers. The feedback process and gentle counsel from the ensemble supported me greatly and taught me that the most important thing to focus on in any theatrical process is ensuring that the story is being told. Working side by side with Christina, I learned the value of imaginative theatricality as a way to encourage investment from the children. Christina showed me that children are quick-witted and attentive when given the chance to engage. Presenting Rikki-Tikki to its first audiences taught me something else about children: they are honest. With laughter and giggles, shouting out at the actors, bouncing or squirming in their seats, singing along of their own accord, what have you, in the very moment of presenting a play to children, you know whether you’ve got them interested.


Photo by Kevin D. Gawley

The next show I would direct for children would be 2009’s Flight of the Dodo, adapted by Rob Kauzlaric, with whom I experienced great success in our director/adaptor relationship with The Island of Dr. Moreau. I was eager to get to work on Dodo for the sheer pleasure of his hilarious script treatment and the exciting demand of placing four singing, flightless birds in a hot air balloon floating through the sky and going on various adventures. My directing experience had been through some interesting challenges at this point and I had the bold impulse to conceptualize a meta-theatrical construct on the way the play would be presented. I created a “Stage Manager” character who, with a wink and a nod to the audience, would manipulate the scenery and puppets around the central characters who took no notice of her themselves. The kids LOVED her and appreciated how much hard work she had to do, running at a full sprint through the majority of the show. It taught me another truism about children: that they are inherently empathetic and kind-hearted. They saw and they cared what the actress was going through, and enjoyed her storytelling all the more. They are able to quickly grasp layered concepts and invest in them so wholly that their belief takes on wings of its own, buoyed by their open hearts. It was inspiring to witness their reaction to the show every time I came back to enjoy it.


Photo by Victoria DeIorio

I wasn’t to direct another show for children until last year’s Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, also adapted by Rob. The whole concept of the show was silly fun, all in all, about a naked mole rat named Wilbur who likes to wear clothes and is ousted in a society where clothing is NOT an option. Before that process started however, my own son arrived. Gus Carlson Holmquist was born at 8:33pm on September 12, 2011, weighing in at 10 pounds even and 20 inches long. As he took his first squeaky breaths, I just marveled at him. Those of you with children of your own will smile at this, but as I looked at Gus I felt that nothing would ever be the same as it was; l now knew a deeper kind of love, I felt a stronger connection to my wife than I ever had before, I had a renewed purpose in my life.

Suddenly, my perspective on what Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed was really about began to shift. It became important to me to focus attention on the theme of acceptance and tolerance inherent in the story, and how we can be transformed by our own efforts to understand and embrace differences. Gus was five months old when we were ready to open Naked Mole Rat, and I remember bringing him to the theatre one early morning before rehearsal. I held him in my arms as he looked out at the actors with his soft jaw and curious eyes and I told my cast that I wanted to direct this play for the opportunity to maybe, just maybe, contribute to a better world for my son. I didn’t plan on saying that, but it was true. It’s not that I lost any enjoyment of the novelty of entertaining children, but there was a new awareness in me of the incredible influence we can have on our children by telling them stories. And several parents who brought their kids to see Naked Mole Rat reported back greater expressions of empathy, which was the greatest praise of our work that I could hope for.

What I experience parenting my toddler is how much he learns by reflecting or repeating back what he’s seen and heard. That’s an essential part of growing up and being in relationship with others. And I know now more than ever what a precious and vital responsibility we have as theatre artists to encourage, enlighten, educate, ennoble, and yes, entertain. The Mystery of the Pirate Ghost has been crafted by adaptor Scott Barsotti with great care and attention on themes of feeling fear, feeling brave and being loved and cared for unconditionally. It brings me such gladness to see the kids in the audience snuggle up to their caregiver in a slightly spooky moment, or ask their buddy next to them, “Are you scared?” Simply by engaging them in our story, we have given them permission, in the moment, to acknowledge their feelings and communicate them, and that’s incredibly gratifying. It is times like that where I count my blessings and good fortune that brought me to Lifeline Theatre.


Photo by Kelsey Jorissen

Paul Holmquist
Ensemble Member

Peter Brown was here!

Peter Brown Signing 1

Flight of the Dodo author-illustrator Peter Brown was our celebrity guest at Lifeline on January 18th.

Author visits are thrilling and most of us Lifeliners were just bouncing gleefully — but the adapter and the director are generally a smidge Anxious as they wonder about author response to “what we’ve done to his book.”  Pretty big changes are required to put a book on stage.  You have to do a lot of writing when you’re turning a picture book with just a few sentences into an hour-long musical. You want to think you’ve expanded in a way that builds on the author’s vision instead of — y’know — shattering it. So Rob and Paul were looking a little green about the gills.

Peter watched the 1pm show and chortled and guffawed throughout. Our spies even reported some knee-slapping. After the show Peter was pulled in several directions by autograph seekers who missed the earlier book-signing. We sold out of books — we were mobbed.

If you don’t know Peter’s work, treat yourself with a visit to his website. And if you haven’t seen Flight of the Dodo, I hope you’ll come visit us. We’ve got themes of teamwork and appreciating each other’s differences. We’ve got a flying machine and a terrifying storm. We’ve got Toy‘s psychedelic, danceable score. And we’ve got bird poop jokes. What’s not to love?

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

Closing three shows, opening two…

Good Lordypants. Closing three shows at once (Duck for Prez, Dorian Gray, Zorro at TBC) is totally like moving. You know that part of the move where everything you own is in chaos at your feet and you can’t find anything because you started to pack all organized but in the end everything was thrown into boxes you despairingly labeled “miscellaneous?” That’s where we’re at right now.

Meantime, Snowflake Tim and Flight of the Dodo are racing to the finish. Our experiment of running two kids shows over the holidays in tandem is about to launch. As the tech team sprints out of the basement with lumber and hangs lights from the grid, our intrepid production manager, Cortney Hurley, tells me that if any part of this enterprise takes longer than expected, the whole thing comes apart at the seams! It adds a nice thrill to the process.

Snowflake Tim rehearsals are a total ball. Diego Colon stars as Snowflake Tim and has a real gift for the improvisational audience interaction that is central to this play. Diego was a caballero/soldier in Zorro for the past 6 months and was also the alternate Duck in Duck for President. (Yes, that show was so darn popular we had to have two casts to cover the gazillion performances.) The remaining two Snowflake cast members are: Ezekiel Sulkes (who recently starred as “the Dirty Cowboy” in Lifeline’s adaptation of the book by the same name. One of Zeke’s several characters in Snowflake Tim is a Ninja who’s afraid to take a bath. Zeke points out that he is now two-for-two at Lifeline in playing characters who are stinky because they haven’t bathed and expects that our young audiences will remember him as the guy who smells bad. He’s also hilarious. Sarah Beckette is the third and last Snowflake Tim cast member. She is new to Lifeline. I saw her at a general audition a year ago and was totally smitten and have been trying to figure out when we could bring her in ever since. We are thrilled to have bagged her for this show.

So I’m totally jealous that Paul Holmquist apparently knows how to run a digital camera. Or else he has minions to shoot it for him. One way or another, he has a picture of the Flight of the Dodo flying machine with his blog entry. My blog entries want pictures too. I will either be learning to run a digital camera or finding a minion before my next post.

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

To build a flying machine…

WE SPIN
WE TWIRL
WE SAIL
WE SWIRL
WE PLUNGE
WE DROP
ASCEND
AND STOP

Our first rehearsals began officially a week ago and already we’re tackling some of the most challenging aspects of the script.  Working with Rob (ensemble member, Robert Kauzlaric) as adapter on a few projects now I know to expect heightened language and an infectious joy for theatricality.  Also inherent in a “Kauzlaric” is bold physical imagery.  His challenge to the director includes vivid descriptions of the seemingly impossible – from The Island of Dr Moreau “The compound collapses as fire sweeps over it” is a good example.

His adaptation of Flight of the Dodo, a book with probably no more than 100 words in it to begin with, involves over thirty minutes of four flightless birds flying through the sky in a hot air balloon. The above quote from the song “Fol-de-rol-ery & Daring-do” describes a flying contest between our heroes and their rivals, The Geese.  Right, I’ve got 30 or so square feet to stage a flying contest between a hot air balloon full of actors and a flock of geese?

As a director, this gets me really excited – how do I inspire designers and actors to help me solve this physical riddle on Lifeline’s famed postage-stamp-sized arena?  Even better, how do we solve this conundrum with respect for both the script AND the audience?  Directing and acting for children requires, one could argue, a special kind of integrity.  In my experience, an adult audience has a natural patience that meets you half way in creating the suspension of disbelief necessary when creating a representational theatrical answer.  For children, if you don’t believe in the construct, if you don’t commit to it 110%, they will see through your shallow “trick” and get bored – fast.

So I did some thinking on ways to fly without leaving the ground.  I looked at puppetry techniques from kabuki and bunraku traditions.  I watched with great envy the viral YouTube video of “Matrix Ping Pong” and did some thinking about forced perspective changes – different sized puppets? A flying machine that has an organic range of movement?  Can we make the floor the sky and the ceiling the ground?  I brought all these questions and inspirations to my design team. Our first and most important job – design the Dodo.

At our first production meeting I suggested that the basket of the Dodo be soft sided, built like an inverted hoop skirt, the birds standing the middle, holding onto the rim, able to tip the top to and fro to indicate movement and allowing for them to travel “Flintstones – style” from one end of the stage to other.  Scenic designer Chelsea Warren ran with this idea.  With practical assistance from Lifeline’s new technical director Ian Zywica, Chelsea created a structure sturdy enough to hold four actors and move with ease around the stage floor while supporting a five foot diameter red weather balloon and integrating the pliable basket idea I had requested.

I am thrilled with the movement of our Dodo – rehearsals are proving that a tremendous range of possibilities are available to us.

Now… how will I stage the singing Penguin Poo? Hmmm….

Paul Holmquist

Welcome!

Look at us!  We’re getting all bloggy!  Can you even believe it?   Welcome — and thank you for visiting our blog.  As I type, I’m humming along with the Duck for President curtain call reprise that’s floating up from the stage below.   I hear the school buses idling out front and hope we can get this group of kids out before the buses pull up to drop off the next load.  (I’m glad Erica‘s downstairs to traffic cop the whole circus.  She used to be a cheerleader, so she’s able to rally the armies of children and get them to do whatever she wants.)  In the office next door — okay, it’s not next door, we’re basically all piled in a room together — but in her own little corner, our education director, Frances, is huddled with one of our teaching artists strategizing about about classroom activities at a neighborhood elementary school, while Angelo is between us, in his little corner, on the phone about our upcoming benefit.  Just outside the office in the rehearsal room, the strange wrestling sounds I keep hearing have turned out to be our tech director, Ian, who is constructing a giant flying machine.  Yes, it’s true.  There will be a giant flying machine featured in our next kids’ show, The Flight of the Dodo.  That may have been top secret.  But this is the place to get the top secret poop.  Oops.  More secrets.  There’s poop in the show too.

Dang, it’s been a busy fall.  In addition to the gazillion Duck for President performances, The Picture of Dorian Gray was a boffo hit that extended.   Plus we moved last summer’s hit, The Mark of Zorro, to Theatre Building Chicago on Belmont Avenue for a fall run there.  And don’t get me started with the birthday parties and special events and off-school workshop days.   But finally we wind down for a brief spell.   Our next MainStage show, Mariette in Ecstasy, doesn’t open until February.  Dorian closed on Sunday — sold out thru the very last show.  Zorro will close this coming Sunday (after 93 performances) and then we’ll bust it up and drag all the salvageable pieces back to Lifeline. Ah, it will be good to be home under one roof rather than scattered all across town.

So welcome to our blog!  I hope you will visit us often and we will keep you up to date on our backstage antics, dilemmas and general hilarity.  Right now, I have to go to my Snowflake Tim rehearsal.  Oh criminy.  That reminds me.  Flight of the Dodo is NOT our next kids’ show.  It’s Snowflake Tim’s Big Holiday Adventure.  That’s a title we came up with a few years ago when we decided we needed a non-denominational holiday kids show.  And who would think that plan would have worked out?  But Christina took that title written on a cocktail napkin and wrote the play and it is GREAT, cuz she’s a genius.  It’s funny, heartwarming, lots of audience participation.  So we bring it back every couple years over the holidays.   So — Snowflake Tim will open first and then Dodo a week later and then they’ll be in rep.  Yes, in rep.  Back-to-back shows right after each other on our little stage with different sets and different casts and not much time in between…  What the heck.  Who made this schedule?  Does no one proofread the calendar?  What were we thinking? I mean — What a bold new experiment!  And with the team we’ve got over here and the production teams on these shows, I have high hopes we’ll be able to work miracles, as usual.

Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it works out for us . . .

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director