Dallas — On January 14, Dallas Children’s Theater hosted its second Play in Progress event of the season. In this installment, Robyn Flatt worked with several local performers who specialize in physical theatre to bring an outline of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to life. Members of the public are invited to these workshops as a way to gain audience input and give a boost to potential projects.
The event was structured in two parts, a preview of the scenes crafted over the course of a week and then a participatory session with the audience (this one included shadow puppetry and aerial work). For this session, the audience included a number of children, teachers, and board members from DCT.
For DCT’s production of Treasure Island, Flatt wanted to utilize a variety of theatrical devices to engage the audience with the story. From the presentation, it was clear that this production would be a physical theatre interpretation of the story.
Flatt noted that they attempted to present the story using as few words as possible and she wanted to utilize devising techniques something that her father Paul Baker instilled in her from a very young age. She gathered artists like Doug Burks, Sally Fiorello, Fanny Kerwich from Lone Star Circus, and Katy Tye from PrismCo. to create as much as possible through a week of rehearsals. With the skill sets of this group, the audience received a physically demanding assortment of scene fragments.
From speaking with a few actors, all of the pieces were developed through improvisations and many people switched character roles through the week as they experimented. You could tell the company was riding by the seat of their pants as they went through the scenes. Creating over an hour’s worth of material in a matter of days is one thing, then they had to perform it all for the public in one shot. By the time they reached the end of the week, Flatt decided to solidify who played which character for the sake of clarity for the public presentation.
Flatt recalled her childhood when describing the way she wanted to start the story, as with children playing and pretending to be pirates. Of course, these were played by adults, but the spirit was communicated effectively. The imaginative play session between the children streamlined into the story effortlessly as Billy Bones appeared with a heavy chest. I took it as the conscious creation of the children’s playtime became authentic as the real pirate entered the story.
These scenelets showcased the major characters, but the real magic of this workshop occurred when the company introduced shadow puppetry, aerials, and explained how they would transform the mainstage space (long sails appear from the ceiling and pirates slide down and onto the stage). The audience had strong reactions when Tye climbed up a silk in the rehearsal hall and slid down while the whole company held the fabric in a slide shape. One of the members of Lone Star Circus also demonstrated how to climb up a rope and perform tricks, which incited responses of wonder from the audience. For one of the nightmare sequences played in complete darkness, the ensemble gathered fabric, a small pirate ship, and a light fixture—simple theatre tricks that can create a stirring effect. Simple things like moving the light source significantly changed the size of the image projected onto the fabric.
The piece found its sea legs when simple theatrical devices like these were utilized, small gestures that remind us that the theatre is a world of physical make-believe. For example, when Jim and his mother turned out all the lights in the inn to secretly peer inside Billy’s treasure chest, the audience gave an audible reaction of wonder to the light source found inside the box.
The exploration highlighted some troubling things as well, something that you tend to forget about “classics” of literature. The scenes emphasize a gruff, inarticulate sense of masculinity—one that revolves around a significant amount of rum. Many scenes also utilize a significant amount of violence, so much that one of the young audience members sitting on the floor in front of me asked “Is this really for children?” If children see characters whose first instinct is to fight when someone or something upsets them, how does the play remove itself from glorifying that violence?
I asked Flatt about the role of violence in this preview specifically in regards to the violence that seems to be permeating our culture with increasing frequency. “I see the story as one of adventure and coming of age caught up in the midst of greed and winning treasure at any cost,” she said. “The production will of course balance the combat segments with the intimate scenes of discovery, with bonding between a young boy and a father figure, with honest caring people outsmarting those who would win at any cost!”
The impressive work of the company demonstrated that imaginative theatre is possible with concentrated effort. DCT has one more Play in Progress workshop this season on April 8 with Linda Daugherty, who will explore the next phase of development on her work for teens, “Screen Play.”