July 1, 1997
Her skin was as white as snow; her lips were as red as blood; and her hair was as golden as her mother's embroidery hoop. Embroidery hoop? Well, when the actress playing Snow White has the furthest thing from ebony hair, the right to be creative is understood.
And, when you're talking about Tulane's Patchwork Players, a 13-year-old troupe that performs children's theater each summer, creativity is not only a right but a trademark. It was back in the summer of 1985, when Tulane theater professor Buzz Podewell, head of the master of fine arts directing program, was approached about starting a children's summer theater program.
"I didn't know anything about children's theater," says Podewell, "but my daughter was three years old at the time, so I agreed to do it."
If Podewell's claim to ignorance of children's theater is really true, then he's fooled a lot of people over the last decade. Performances by the Patchwork Players have become one the most beloved aspects of summer for hundreds of community children, and Podewell, who is the writer, director and producer of the shows, has had no small hand in their success.
His original idea was to do improvisational theatre, but Podewell found the shows were becoming less and less spontaneous, so "finally I just went home and wrote the thing."
The Patchwork Players' repertoire now includes eight scripts--all written by Podewell: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was presented in June; Pecos Bill, which is being performed this month; Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Aladdin, The Emperor's New Clothes, Hansel and Gretel and Shorts, which is a series of lesser-known tales from various countries.
Each script has several original songs also written by Podewell. In Snow White, for example, the actor playing the wicked queen's mirror breaks into a rendition of "You're Such a Beauty," to the tune of "That's Entertainment." It's that type of cleverness in the scripts that holds not only the children's attention but amuses the adults as well.
In what other version of Snow White would you find the wicked queen appearing to Snow White at the dwarfs' cottage disguised as a Domino's pizza delivery man? While the scripts have remained, for the most part, the same during the last 13 years, Podewell, who directs each show, says he encourages the actors to improvise where they can.
"It's an interesting experience because it's a different kind of theater--one that's inventive and interactive with the audience," says Tom Dugger, a Chalmette high school teacher who has been a member of the Patchwork Players since its beginning. "We can deviate from the script, but that requires a great deal of concentration at all times."
It helps, Dugger says, that children from the audience are asked to participate as characters in the plays. In Snow White, Dugger played the dwarf called "Dopey" and children from the audience were tapped to play the remaining six dwarfs. "Anything the children say or bring up offers an opportunity to deviate from the script," he says.
Beyond the creativity, part of the shows' charm lies in their consistency and simplicity. Each show begins with a huge crate on the stage, which when opened appears like an armoire with costumes hanging on hooks. Inside the crate there's also a large box, from which the actors are summoned with a knock. One of the actors is always a banjo-playing narrator, who then leads the remaining cast into the Patchwork Players' opening song--a catchy tune that sends the actors into the audience to talk to the children. The actors all wear shirts with their names printed on them.
"None of the costumes should cover up the actor's name," explains Podewell. "We want the children to identify with the actor as a friend playing someone else."
Along those lines, Podewell has also toned down some of the more gruesome plot twists of some popular fairy tales. Whereas the wicked queen in the original Snow White dies at the end of the story by being forced to dance at Snow White's wedding while wearing red-hot iron slippers, in Podewell's version, the queen repents and decides to marry Dopey. "He is kind of cute," she says.
Though Podewell and his Patchwork Players do little publicity for the performances, word has spread over the years to the point where reservations are generally required for each show. What's more, Podewell has been asked repeatedly to take the show on the road and perform at such events as the Kids' Tent of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. While he admits that the idea of a permanent company is very appealing, Podewell says it has never been possible.
"Undergraduates, who are often cast members, are always leaving or are too busy year-round," he says.
Besides Dugger, this year's cast includes two returning members: Podewell's daughter Jessica, who is a junior at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and Greg Stratton, a University of New Orleans graduate who teaches courses at Tulane's University College. New members include Newcomb graduate Katherine Walters, professional actor Lance Spellerberg, and Tulane freshman Marc Anderson. Though the cost of tickets is kept at a minimum, $5, the actors are paid for their participation.
"With two shows a day, four days a week for six weeks, I feel they deserve to be paid well," Podewell says. Performances of Pecos Bill in the Myra Clare Rogers Memorial Chapel are scheduled July 8-26. For a detailed listing of dates and times, consult the Inside Tulane calendar. To make reservations for a specific performance, call 865-5105.
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