How I Got a Pet Theater Company: Sarah Werthan Buttenweiser on being PaintBox Theatre’s ‘sage adviser’ and biggest fan
For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Thursday, July 12, 2018
You know how some parents don’t have a dog, but the kid wears them down and they get a dog? Eventually, the kid goes to college and the dog stays home? So, the parents get a dog, although they technically didn’t mean to get a dog.
Full disclosure: I’m not a pet person. My younger kids have begged me for a dog. We do not have a dog because I fear the scenario I just described above. However, I understand the phenomenon because I do have a pet project, a children’s theater company, PaintBox Theatre.
It’s mine, and by “mine,” I mean my favorite, but not literally mine. This is PaintBox’s 15th season, and it’s my 15th PaintBox season, too. I have four kids whose ages spread a dozen-year span, from 10 to 22, so I have had “age-appropriate” theatergoers in residence for an awfully long time.
How does this hew with the kid/dog analogy? Well, I would not be explaining this to you if not for my eldest son, Ezekiel.
PaintBox Theatre, based in Northampton, is the brainchild and baby of Tom McCabe, a longtime storyteller and educator who could be mistaken for Santa Claus (and maybe you can ask him about a long-ago job in that role). He has the humor of a Catholic schoolboy, since he was one, which is to say he will tell you who not to mess with and then what happens if you do (hint: the nuns). And he has a booming voice that modulates to almost any other pitch, as does his laugh.
Tom has produced and performed in children’s theater in the Valley (he travels further and wider as an educator/storyteller) for significantly more than 15 years. I first learned about Tom because one of my good friends worked with him in children’s theater in the 1980s. Fast-forward about a decade to when I saw a bunch of Tom’s shows at the Mount Holyoke Children’s Summer Theatre in the 1990s. At the time, my two older sons, now in college, were quite small.
Here’s what I remember about those shows: The outdoor setting felt like a Roman amphitheater, only not as old and in New England and filled with young kids. Mount Holyoke has this impressive outdoor space unlike anything else around here. There were so many cars that the walk from the edge of a parking lot to the amphitheater was long. And slow — weighted down with snacks and diapers and hats and toys. My kids were small, sticky and hot. All that was really the backdrop.
And the shows? They were so funny, so madcap. I never felt like I had to endure them for the sake of my very young children. I took those kids to many puppet shows and plays, and a high percentage of the performances we attended were not at all fun for me. Watching Tom’s shows, I laughed as much as or more than my kids did as we watched twisted takes on known tales like “The Frog Prince,” “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
So, I was excited when PaintBox Theatre began in 2003, and I was especially delighted to see the shows in Smith College’s Theater 14 for three key reasons: The theater building was close to our house; it was air-conditioned; and I knew I could look forward to the shows at least as much as my children did.
PaintBox uses a very modest formula. Three actors play all the roles. Occasionally, a fourth actor sneaks in. As you can imagine, to have the actors inhabiting multiple characters guarantees some absurdity. The audience is in on this from the start. Audience members take on bit parts or sometimes band together to fill a main role.
The set is minimal. There are two doors and a window in the middle of the stage and a chest — think: treasure; or bench; or who knows what— that occasionally moves around. Every single show assumes this basic arrangement. Costumes and smaller set pieces might gussy things up, but at the core, PaintBox’s premise relies upon this simplicity. A screen gives the audience instructions: Read the yellow words out loud, or follow the cues in red. In this way, the audience must remain engaged.
The screen also displays the rest of the set, which is actually children’s art, to show specific locations — the jungle, say, or the castle — or to show any number of characters or props. Rather than construct scenery, PaintBox asks audience members to paint pictures themselves; in advance of a show, through a mailing list, they share a list of scene-setting details that are needed and then collect audience-produced images to project during the performance. Children of all ages (from toddlers to young-at-heart great-grandparents) can submit images, and then the kids get the thrill of being PaintBox’s resident artists for that show. It’s so fun to see artwork made by your kid and your kid’s friends become bright and large and integral to a real theater production.
There’s a generosity to every PaintBox show. Certain themes repeat: friendship, love, and a thirst for learning prevail. Kindness matters in the world of PaintBox. Even when the characters struggle or feel fear, the day is saved and happiness is restored. We need that right about now.
In what I like to think of as the “good-for-you aisle,” art and literacy are celebrated. In the “straight-up-silly aisle,” mayhem reigns, but it’s safe mayhem, the kind of bedlam you know will end well, although one theater critic, who is also a big fan, claims PaintBox is nearly like Brecht in terms of anarchy. There is certainly enough ribbing of parents’ ways and also the Valley’s ways to let us laugh at ourselves. I think what I am trying to say is that to go to a PaintBox show makes me feel happy. I do not tire of it — and I have really logged a potential record by now as a superfan. I do not always bring my kids!
My eldest son, Ezekiel, discovered his love for theater during preschool. I think “The Music Man” on Broadway sealed the deal. (The friend who’d worked with Tom all those years ago was a company manager on Broadway by then and got us a tour backstage after the show.) But arguably, Ezekiel had already been snagged between the Mount Holyoke Children’s Summer Theatre and those puppet shows.
My small kids grew big and got a brother and a sister. Often, during a PaintBox show’s run, we attended two performances. Between the first and the second, we might begin to hum some little line from the show, like, “We’re going on an adventure, because life is an adventure.”
Parallel to all of this, Ezekiel developed an interest in how stuff works backstage. He began to volunteer during middle school as a stagehand with PaintBox. This somehow led to his thinking that I should get involved, especially with fundraising. Because I loved my kid, loved his participation, and was a tried and true fan myself, I offered to help.
One benefit to meeting with Tom McCabe is that you are always rewarded with a story. He once wheedled a set design from renowned artist Stephen Hannock by stressing over and over, “but it’s for the kids.”
A couple of years ago, PaintBox moved from Smith to The Williston Theatre (at The Willliston Northampton School in Easthampton). The 288-seat theater, located at 18 Payson Avenue, serves our demographic of mainly small people perfectly. While I am technically a board member, my official/unofficial title at PaintBox is “sage adviser.” This sounds a little “Wizard of Oz”-like, doesn’t it? (That was a really fun show, by the way.) Basically, in this role, I started to raise money the most direct way — I asked people I love, and who love me, to support PaintBox, and I asked other fans I knew. As time went on, I searched for sponsors. There’s a long list of them, including GoBerry, which has sponsored PaintBox ever since I first asked seven years ago.
The “sage adviser” handle? I think it came about because I’ve been willing to try almost anything, from asking for money to negotiating space and rights to picture books to adapt to stage. For example, I did a who-knows-Kelly DiPucchio author hunt to reach her and ask to adapt her wonderful book, “Grace for President,” about a little girl who decides to run for election after her teacher shares that the United States has never had a female president. DiPucchio not only gives readers a fun introduction to the American electoral system, but she also teaches them the value of hard work, courage and independent thought — and offers an inspiring example of how to choose our leaders. It was a natural fit for PaintBox.
That said, I also like any show that involves pirates because the cheesiness gets turned up to 11 whenever you can insert RRRR into any word you please — and these actors tend to go a little overboard. (See what I did there?)
As a longtime volunteer, I am aware of the fact that this company of talented actors and others have taken on an increased amount of the “stuff” — especially Troy David Mercier, with his dual role as performer and company manager, which leaves Tom McCabe more time to wear his artistic director hat. All that is in service to what happens onstage, particularly the actors’ easy synchronicity. Linda Tardif, Troy David Mercier, Callum LaFrance and Myka Plunkett have banded together through all sorts of absurd escapades over numerous seasons. These actors have an insatiable appetite to mine ever more silliness from each performance. Silliness really is the name of this PaintBox game.
Ezekiel, who pulled me into PaintBox service around eight or nine years ago, has taken this summer off for other adventures before his last year of college (he’s 22), which is how it’s supposed to be. And my youngest is 10, so I had to invite my three-year-old next-door neighbor to the first show instead. But if you see me laughing louder than anyone else at one of the shows this summer, that’s because I will never outgrow PaintBox’s brand of raucous pandemonium and fun.
For more information about PaintBox Theatre and upcoming shows, including “Pirates!” and “The Little Mermaid,” visit paintboxtheatre.org.
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