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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!

A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD actor Steve Pacek reflects on his experience as in Children’s Theatre as an actor and director.

One of the first acting exercises in one of my first acting classes in college was to tell a children’s story.  We had to select a book from our childhood and bring it to life…playing every character, enacting every wild moment.  I chose The Day Jimmys’ Boa Ate the Wash and I couldn’t have been more excited!  I had always been super interested in getting to explore characters that are as different from myself as possible–the way they walk, the way they talk, how I could get my body to look completely different–it fascinated me.  I had to play a boa constrictor, every farm animal imaginable, Jimmy, his sister, a grandma, and a cow that some of my friends still ask me to do to this day.  We had to find a way to give ourselves permission to make the biggest, boldest choices while remaining true to the story–that was the purpose of the exercise.  That and be as entertaining as possible!  No small challenge.  But it was one that I gladly accepted.  And though I might not have realized it at the time, that children’s story exercise was laying the foundation upon which I’d build an awesome career in the years to come…

Flash forward a handful of years and I get cast in my first Arden Children’s Theatre show, Franklin’s Apprentice, in 2004.  In that show, I played William Franklin, the son of Benjamin Franklin.  Although my character was relatively normal (a human being, that is), our director, Aaron Posner urged us to really dig into the adventure in the story–sibling rivalries, family arguments, standing up for what you believe in, flying a kite in a lightning storm!  And it was in rehearsals for that piece that I was given a direction that I am still trying to figure out how to do to this day: to sit without sitting. Think about that for second…

After Franklin’s Apprentice, my next Arden Children’s Theatre show was the one I still get stopped on the street and asked about the most…If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  So many people seem to remember that show so vividly and always ask, “You were the mouse, weren’t you?!?!”  That’s also the first show I got to work on with the director, Whit McLaughlin.  It was a masterclass in physical theatre and clowning.  Whit would have very specific ideas and choreography mapped out for me and Davy Raphaely, who played the boy.  But he would also give us some time to go and create some of our own bits, taking what we were learning and applying it on the spot.  That was the first time I realized how scientific and mathematical comedy is.  Through repetition, I learned how slight changes in the pitch of my voice or the tilt of my head or the length of a pause effects how the audience responds.  This was also the show that I learned the importance of not reaching for the laugh.  There was a scene where Mouse was trying to reach the milk in the bottom of a big, over-sized glass.  He would stick his whole face in the glass and try to reach down to the bottom with his tongue.  This would always get a laugh during rehearsals and during the first couple of previews, but then the laughs started fading.  I asked Whit why that was happening and he offered me some advice that was so simple, yet so profound…”Reach for the milk, not the laugh.” I had started playing the moment for the laugh instead of the the truth  of Mouse’s intention to get the milk at the bottom of the glass…

Next up was The Borrowers, again with Whit.  The challenge this time would force me to draw on my training of creating many different characters with voice and movement work.  I played a handful of characters from a friendly handy-man, to a ferocious, miniature Tarzan, to a delightfully silly long-lost cousin.  How do you make it look like you’re moving on water on a dry stage?  How do you have a battle with a giant wasp while playing both opponents?  How do you make a journey of a couple inches feel like you’re crossing the Sahara?  In The Borrowers, I learned a thing or two about adventure acting…high stakes, full-bodied story-telling.  And Whit shared with us another technique from the world of clowning: drinking tea while on the precipice.  Every moment should feel as if there is a very clear and present danger right under you, but that you are always in control.  That’s adventure acting!

Then it was Robin Hood with the director, Matt Decker.  Adventure acting at its finest–Sword fights, zip-lines, flipping over the jungle gym.  And the unforgettable clown that was Prince John…that money-loving, trumpet-playing, short-tempered, self-righteous, man-child.  An exercise in extremes, to be sure.  And a challenge to play a lovable villain…

Sideways Stories from the Wayside School again had me playing the villains, Mr. and Mrs. Gorf…but the kind you love to hate.  Also the tango teacher, Ms. Valoosh, a rat boy, a buffoon of a principal and the voice of a completely animated character, which was a first for me!

Then, I switched gears and co-directed The Cat in the Hat with Doug Hara.  Harnessing all that I had learned from performing in the Arden Children’s Theatre shows over the years and trying to pass it on, not only to the performers but also to the audience.  But working with the magnificent clowning of Charlotte Ford and Dave Johnson and the acrobatic and intellectual Doug Hara and the earnestness and curiosity of Maggie Johnson and Richard Cradle made telling one of the greatest stories ever written such a joy.

Which leads us to A Year With Frog and Toad.  I think I may be one of the only people in Philadelphia who hadn’t seen the show at the Arden the last two times they did it.  But coming to this show with fresh eyes and no expectations was delightful.  It gave me the permission to create from scratch again, which has truly become a passion of mine.  It has all the hallmarks of a Whit show…the precision deliveries, the challenging physical feats, maintaining a sense of adventure at all costs, but it also has such a wonderful ease about it.  And the music (directed by Amanda Morton) has been such gift to add into the mix.  I also do a lot of musicals, so for me, this has really been a merging of my two loves and I’m ever so grateful to be a part of it!

One of my lines toward the end of the show is “Well, here we are again folks.  Over the years, some things change and that’s good.  And some things don’t change and that’s good too.”  And over my years of doing these shows with Arden Children’s Theatre, some things do change, like the shows, the performers, the directors and the audiences.  And like we say, “that’s good.”  But other things don’t change, like the commitment to excellence, the crafting of productions that truly are fun for everyone, and the commitment to treating kids like the smart people they are, resisting ever feeling like we have to talk down to the them or overdo something so they’ll “get it.”  And that’s good too.  VERY good!  Kids get it.

I believe in the work for young audiences so much that I have devoted a large portion of my professional career to it.  I feel the palpable energy in the theatre when a group of kids are seeing their first show.  I’ve answered thousands of questions because curiosity and imagination has been peaked so keenly that they just have to know how we created that special effect on-stage.  I’ve been on the receiving end of a hug so strong that tells me someone has connected to the story so deeply and that maybe they don’t feel so alone in the world now.  There is power in the theatre.  And with that power comes responsibility.  Rest assured that those who are helping to create theatre at the Arden are in a constant state of honing their craft and learning as we continue telling stories into the future…

I hope to see you at A Year With Frog and Toad and then later in the spring at The Light Princess, which I’ll be directing!  It has truly been my pleasure.


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