We’re quiet as mice as we tippy-toe, tippy toe in to The Mady Centre, hoping not to disturb a rehearsal in session. But no! I have a hunch the Munsch Bunch are about to munch their lunch…crunch-crunch!
Silly, silly, I know! But author Lori McIntyre and I are here for a pre-arranged chat with the cast and director of ‘Munsch Ado About Nothing’. A touch of silliness is a prerequisite. Robert Munsch has that effect on children and adults alike.
Munsch’s personal story is almost as bizarre as some of his children’s stories. A former Jesuit candidate who met his wife while working in a daycare centre in Pennsyvania. A transplanted American, now a proud Canadian. One of the world’s most popular authors in any genre with book sales in the millions, in dozens of languages.
Dare you not to smile!
You can’t help but smile, laugh and become a kid again when you read or hear Munsch’s work. It’s contagious, as is the laughter –filled rehearsal environment director Ryan Laplante has created for his cast and crew. We’re absorbed instantly.
‘Oh no! The dreaded tape recorder! ‘ cries Ryan as he sees me pull out the microphone. ‘I’m about to be immortalised!’ Ryan is well-known to audiences in Barrie. A graduate of the 2nd City Comedy Academy, a writer and director of his own upcoming horror movie (‘It’s called ‘Holy Hell’; couldn’t be more different than this!’) and in his spare time an on-screen cast member of YTV’s ‘Extreme Baby Sitting’. Ryan’s one of those instantly likable guys, with slightly askew horn-rimmed glasses, a shock of reddish hair and a face etched with impending mischief. You just know something funny is about to happen or be said. He just needs a cue.
Laplante feeds his cast encouragement from notations he’s made on his i-Phone, truly a director of this millennium. If there’s a theme to what he tells them it is this: ‘Energy, energy, energy! Keep the stakes high!’
‘Robert Munsch’s stories are so crazy’ explains Laplante. ‘They’re wild and wacky on the page, but when you try to do a literal representation of his stories, they’re insane! And I say ‘Good! We’ve got something we can put on the stage that kind of odd and out there.’ I said to the cast ‘Let’s go big, let’s go bold!’ And there’s always a twist. You never know where it’s going.’
Give me themes! Give me subtext!
Well, if that’s what you’re looking for every time you go to theatre, take a breath when you see Munsch Ado About Nothing. Oh there’s a theme running through these stories and through all of Munsch’s work.
The world of adults as seen by children is always an entry into humour. Laplante explains it as Kids versus Adult. Kids versus Adults! What a perfect set up inter-generational comedy. ‘The kid is always the smartest person in these stories, which is what I love. And let’s not beat around the bush; Kids Are Awesome! The authority figures are sort of incompetent and the kids are wonderful positive forces. But the stories are not so much ‘anti-authoritarian’ as ‘pro-kid’. The kids take responsibility, they’re positive social forces, they’re stepping up to the plate. Like in ‘Murmel, Murmel, Murmel’; there’s the idea that a 5 year old kid finds a baby in a hole, an odd concept in itself, but the kid recognises that she has to find someone to look after the baby. ‘I know I’m not capable of this’ she admits. And she steps out into a world where all the adults walk by with their own ‘real world’ problems. They don’t want the baby. But the kid is initiating the search. These stories are empowering for them.’
And the adults say the most darned stupidest things ‘Don’t think in my class. Don’t remember anything in my class!’ says the teacher in ‘The Class Clown’. Laplante eats this up. ‘It’s a dream being able to present a scene where a teacher is trying to trade intelligence for behavior.’
But what of ‘Munsch Ado About Nothing’? This production works off a script developed by Debbie Patterson, not that this holds Ryan Laplante and his cast back in the least. ‘We’ve lovingly tweaked the adaptation, in style more than anything else. We’ve added some musical numbers, sound effects and jokes that are more in line with previous Theatre by the Bay Young Company productions; it’s a collaborative effort from all cast members.’
Hello! I’m William Shakespeare. And I have a problem!
Sounds good, but what does it look like? Luckily, we’re in for a full run-through with most of the props and many of the costumes, an important rehearsal process needed to develop the show’s running time reference.
The hall explodes to the theme from ‘Rocky’, as Ryan Bommarito bursts on stage, striking a Travolta-Saturday Night Fever pose. Many of us of course saw Ryan as ‘Romeo’ in Theatre by the Bay’s open-air ‘Romeo & Juliet’ last month, when his smile and earnest characterisation won the heart of ‘Juliet’ and those of the females in the audience. Here he is a young, long-haired John Cleese who drank one too many Red Bulls. He charges across the stage, breaking the 4th wall in under 15 seconds as he bounds into the audience with his long thin legs churning and arms whirling in all directions. He emphatically cajoles the audience into instant participation, bellowing out big lyrics to popular songs.
He’s ‘William Shakespeare’, the leader of troubadours with a menagerie of bears, lions and tigers. But he has a problem. The bear has wandered off somewhere, the lion has been sold to pay for food to feed the tiger, and the tiger has ‘passed on’ from old age, mind you very well fed for his eternal voyage. What to do? ‘Tell stories’ suggests one of his troupe! Of course! Stories! And so emerges a series of five Robert Munsch classics separated by high speed chases through the set and around the audience Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson musical routines and over-the-top Gangnam style choreography. This is stuff that kids will eat up by the spoonful.
Are there layers? Is there inner meaning?
Hey! We’re talking Robert Munsch here, folks! But for those of you who ask for ‘layers’, who crave structure and themes in their plotlines, even in children’s’ theatre, Laplante is prepared to throw you a bone. ‘Well, there are perhaps two layers’ (Oh, yay!) ‘There’s the Munsch stories themselves and there are the actor-characters in Shakespeare’s troupe who perform them. You’ve got the basic outline of characters trying to save a rapidly collapsing animal show that’s lost all its animals, who turn to performing stories instead. So you are watching characters playing characters. The through-line is the personal relationship of these performers. It’s a show within a show’
I don’t think I can do that anymore!
The physicality of the show is astounding, certain to amuse adults and kids alike. Actor Jade Hesson, for example, demonstrates what we all likely did as kids but can’t imagine doing now… chewing one’s own toes nails. She brings crossed eyes and nose play to an Olympic level. I wonder to myself if that’s something one should put on a resume. Hmmm.
And the faces these actors can pull off are hysterical. It begs the question ‘Do you guys, like, stand in front of a mirror and practise? Do you have any idea how funny you look?’
Jade won’t admit (openly) to mirror work ‘You’ve just got to feel it.’ Brina Romanek comes out however: ‘There’s been many a time I’ve been in the bathroom brushing my teeth and stretched my face out.’ As for their director, Ryan is quite happy to say ‘I spend a lot of my time stretching my face. I will even argue with myself in different accents.’ But as this discussion descends into hilarity about private facial distortions and odd conduct, with Laplante leading the charge, what is clear to Lori and me is that the show demands a high level of improvisational skill.
And through this in turn comes the fact that the show itself will evolve throughout its run. As Brina says ‘The show that opens the run will not be the same show we close with at the end.’ Jade adds ‘It’s a combination of what Ryan is letting us do along with the way it works at Theatre by the Bay.’
Never the same show twice
This ever-changing show dynamic is of great importance to Laplante. ‘You can’t do a comedy if it has to be the same every time, because different audiences are going to like different jokes. My job is to prepare the actors for as many things that could happen as possible. So I’ve been trying to throw them as many curve balls as I can in rehearsal so they’re very confident in their characters. I am trying to build what I call ‘tent poles’, moments that we want to consistently do; but in the parts in between they’ve just got to feel and find their way, because some days things will go well and on others they won’t.’
Distraction and interaction is all art of the show
Shows like ‘Munsch Ado’ don’t just invite but actively encourage audience participation throughout. Actors who are wedded to a script and distracted by crinkly candy wrappers need not apply! But how does this cast regard the unpredictability of young audiences? I ask each one in turn.
Ryan B.: ‘It’s exciting. There’s never a moment when you can simply fall into the script. Anything they throw at us we are more than willing to throw back at them, so that creates an integrating dynamic.’
Jade: ‘It’s interactive, you’re talking to everybody, throwing in random lines. You can play with it more, you don’t have to stick to the script. It makes me more comfortable. It’s a lot more fun.’
Brina: ‘In the rehearsal process it’s hard to imagine the audience interaction points. But when we do have the audience, it will be a big bump in energy level and will add a level of excitement to our performance. We’ll come off the stage with a terrific high. Every audience will be different, so every show will be unique.’
Laplante points out that when you fill a room with children, the feedback comes quickly. ‘The audience is very clear about what they like, and very, very clear about what they don’t like. They don’t ‘boo’, but they do start talking! As soon as pacing picks up again, the kids go silent and watch. It’s an audience you can lose easily but also an audience you can win back easily. So if that happens, I’ve told my actors “You’ve got to be louder, you’ve got to be more exciting, more active.’’”
Ryan has put tremendous trust in his small cast. ‘We’ve got some really seasoned professionals. Ryan Bommarito has just come out of George Brown. Brina is on her way to George Brown. Jade’s in her fourth TBTB show and has done almost as many pantomimes as I have, which is a very terrifying number!’
I feel like gasping for breath at the end of the run-through. It is non-stop action, music and dance. I’ve been cheering, laughing, and yelling out…. just like a kid. As we leave The Mady I turn to Lori and ask her ‘Does your face hurt? I think I been over-smiling!’ Maybe facial stretches in the mirror are a good idea, for the audience as well as the cast!
Theatre by the Bay’s production of ‘Munsch Ado About Nothing’ runs from August 19th to 31st
at The Mady Centre, 5 Points in Barrie
Additional shows have been added!
Check the TBTB website for full details