When you live to perform, a year is a long time to wait to step in front of an audience. The wait is finally over for students in the Theatre Department.
They launched their 2021-2022 season with a preview show on Thursday, October 7, at the Gorham Arts Alliance to a crowd of mostly elementary-age kids. The sound of laughs and applause was especially welcome after being absent for so long. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Theatre Department scrapped its entire slate of live performances last year.
“Being back is kind of surreal because I wasn’t sure if it was ever going to come back,” said featured performer and third-year Theatre major Ricky Brewster. “It’s very relieving and very comforting that we’re able to get back to this.”
Brewster and the full cast poured all of that pent up energy into “The Marvelous Meep Island Adventure.” It’s based on a play by Ed Swidey, but students brought their own ideas to the show and built off the original framework to create something unique.
Meeps are the kind of creatures you might meet in a fairy tale. They’re colorful and curious and happy just to be together. Their idyllic world is upended by the arrival of the domineering Somethings who try to erase the Meeps’ collective identity. The Meeps answer force with kindness.
“Joy and laughter and fun and community are the things that actually sustain all of us,” said the show’s director and Associate Professor, Sara Valentine. “When we bring others into our community and share that joy and laughter, transformation can take place. So while it is a children’s show and there’s Meeps, it actually operates on a lot of different levels.”
As Head of the Theatre Department, Valentine said the pandemic pushed the entire artistic community to reevaluate its choices both thematically and logistically. “Meep Island” was chosen to help with transition back to live performance.
In a first for the department, “Meep Island” will forgo the usual environs of the Gorham campus in order to reconnect with the community by travelling to venues across southern and central Maine. It will also be staged outdoors where the possibility of transmitting the coronavirus is much lower.
The set is made up of three portable canopies that can be snapped together and fully decorated in less than an hour. For the preview show, they went up in a parking lot with the audience seated on lawn chairs or directly on the pavement.
The fresh air meant face masks could come off. That was especially important since so much of the show relies on body language. Dialogue is kept at a minimum since the entire Meep vocabulary is limited to just their own name. With only one word at their disposal, the actors need to vary their tone and inflection to convey shades of meaning.
“We actually had a dictionary of all the Meeps and what the Meeps meant even though it was just one word,” said fourth-year Theatre major Alyssa Pearl-Ross. “And we based it off a lot of facial expressions and hand gestures and things like that to get the message across.”
When words failed the Meeps, the kids in the audience stepped in to help. They’d crow like roosters or boo at the villains based on signals from the narrator. And after the final bow, several of the kids delighted the cast by lining up for autographs.
“Children like to be in the moment,” Brewster said. “And it’s really nice because you get instant feedback with children. You know if it’s going right or if it’s going wrong. A little disconcerting at first when you’re getting used to it. But once you really get into it, it’s so rewarding.”
That skill can be a valuable one. Valentine said many of her graduates have gotten their first jobs with touring children’s productions. And learning to manage the outdoor environment also prepares them for work in Shakespeare festivals that perform in community parks.
The challenges facing students this year are a welcome change from the restrictions imposed on them by the pandemic last year. While unable to perform live, they engaged in Zoom workshops and personal projects. But “Meep Island” is a step back toward the kind of experience that led them to pursue a degree in theatre.
“I think the enthusiasm of the students is going to be palpable,” Valentine said. “We’re doing it for the audience in that we feel like we have a story to share that hopefully will move and inspire them in a way where they’re different and better because they saw live theatre.”
“Meep Island” will run through October 17 with shows in South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Portland, Westbrook, Freeport, Bowdoinham and Gorham. Admission is free.