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Theater Review: Eliot girl's story becomes a musical

Originally published on Seacoast Online

Upside Arts co-founder Miles Burns understands the value of youth theater, his theater company’s focus. He was involved as a viewer and a performer at an early age. Now he wants to offer that opportunity to other kids, both in front of and behind the lights.

The current opportunity comes in the form of three, one-weekend original musical productions at the Players’ Ring Theatre in Portsmouth in October, February and April, a culmination of Upside Arts’ performance workshops.

Burns, a Seacoast native, recalls attending theater throughout the region from an early age, including a memorable presentation of “The House on Pooh Corner” at the Ring, a rare children’s production at the venue. By junior high he was on stage and has since performed throughout the area. Now it’s time to bring that experience and its benefits to others, he said.

First up is “Pengui” on Oct. 19-20, which lists a credit to a third-grade student who lives in Eliot, Maine.

“Pengui’s” storyline was conceived by 8-year-old Georgia Pendleton at age 5. The “real-life” Pengui is Pendleton’s penguin plushie, her close companion since age 2 when she found her on a trip to The New England Aquarium.

A few years back, Pendleton, whose interests are art, bugs, penguins and playing in the woods, shared one of the many tales she’d imagined featuring Pengui with Burns.

“I said, ‘Wow, it’s just like a really cool, unfiltered idea with a great moral,’” Burns said. “It’s about (Pengui) who is determined to be the first penguin to fly.”

Fast forward two years and Burns reached out to the young storyteller for more details as well as permission to adapt the tale to the stage.

Things went quiet again. Then, more recently, Claudia Kaerner, Pendleton’s mom, showed her a screenshot of a promotional piece for the play at the Players’ Ring.

“I didn’t even know it would actually be a play,” said Pendleton, who hopes to explore Antarctica and save penguins some day. “So then when I actually found out it was a play I was excited.”

Pendleton sat in on auditions, and attended rehearsals.

“It was fun seeing it come together, and seeing them do their parts, and then next time different (scenes),” Pendleton said. “They’d do little parts at a time, add more songs, and then put it together. ... It was really fun.

“I’m happy that my idea was turned into a play.”

Burns wrote “Pengui’s” book script, lyrics and music, “but it’s Georgia’s brainchild,” he said.

The youth actors for “Pengui,” and all the company’s productions, are auditioned members of Upside Arts’ Original Theatre Workshop. The process includes two months of rehearsal during which everyone had input on the piece.

Burns has a unique process for working the original projects with children. Before rehearsal begins, he writes a synopsis, and outlines the journey of a few characters, but holds off creating all the roles until after auditions, he said.

“I’d have a handful of characters that were plot points, but ’til I audition, see their faces and hear their voices - well it’s hard for me without getting to know them. ... When I do, that’s when we create other character,” he said. “A huge part of this is setting them up for success. They’re each written a part that’s based on their actual voice, something I can hear in their sound, inflection, face or emotion.”

The young actors help develop the story within Burns’ framework. “They’re not handed a script right away. ... I teach them a song and we talk about where this is going, what are we going to do here, and I guide that. It’s a one-of-a-kind program.”

Christian Arnold, who performs as Grand Ami, is the show’s sole adult.

“The kids love that they get to work with this actor that played the Beast in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ this summer (at Prescott Park),” Burns said. “They get to share the stage with him, and he enjoys being on stage with them. It’s pretty cool to watch it.”

The same format will be used for the next two productions in the series, “Illuminating Tail” Feb. 1-2, and “The Mouse and the Lion” April 18-19.

Peter Splaine and Burns will collaborate on “Illuminating Tail,” which is about a raccoon who isn’t nocturnal and ties a lamppost to his tail when he travels around at night.

“It’s really very existential, ‘How do I find the light that’s in me, who am I, and what am I doing?” Burn said. “It’s about ‘What is the point of all this?’”

“The Mouse and the Lion” will be Burn’s adaptation of an Aesop’s Fable. It features a dodgy city mouse who takes refuge in the jungle from some seedy characters.

“So this one is about learning trust, friendship,” he said.

The Upside Arts productions will be a rare beast at the Ring, which presents children’s theater infrequently, and not for some years. But, it’s a perfect, intimate location, Burns says.

“Right now we don’t have a permanent theater space. We rent,” he said. “So, I thought why not pitch it to the Ring, which was founded on the idea of original work. It doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of opportunity for kids to see something that’s meant for the kids and family.

There’s value in those tales directed at them as performers and audience members, he said. He experienced its gifts as a child, and wants others to as well.

“Audience or actor, it teaches empathy in an extremely useful way, in a variety of different ways. (And) I know I started developing confidence in myself when I was in my first play in middle school,” he says. “For me, it’s what if we’re able to help someone find a little of that confidence, to help them to get to who they’re going to be faster.”

Go & Do

What: “Pengui,” an Upside Arts children’s theater production

When: 10 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 19 and Sunday, Oct. 20

Where: The Players’ Ring Theatre, 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $12, child, senior, student; $14, adult


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