When Rick Hammerly was asked to direct Adventure Theatre MTC’s production of “Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook,” he had never heard of Barbara Park’s bestselling children’s book series.
Deciding to read the books first and then the play, he was a little taken aback by the kindergartener’s questionable vocabulary choices plus grammatically incorrect verb tenses. As such, Hammerly, founder and producing artistic partner for the D.C.-based theater collective Factory 449, thought the play might not be a great example for children.
While meeting for lunch with his Ford’s Theatre “A Christmas Carol” co-star, Hammerly shared his reservations. Maria Egler, it turned out, had grown up reading the “Junie” series. She told Hammerly that for her, “a lead female character that wasn’t like a Barbie doll, that wasn’t like a princess,” made her realize “that I was normal just being me and I didn’t have to be the pretty girl with the long blonde hair, with the tiny waist, wearing dresses every day. I could wear overalls if I wanted to. I could play with the boys.”
As a result, Hammerly said, “All of a sudden, all of ‘Junie’ took on a very different meaning for me. It was empowering for women and for all children. …It’s OK to be quirky, odd and just be you. That has a place.
“I love it when you have a play and all of the sudden you figure out the reason it needs to be done.”
On the Adventure Theatre stage through Aug. 13, “Junie” follows the story of the character who loses her new furry mittens to some “stealers,” yet she may have a pen that belongs to someone else that she did not return.
Megan Graves takes on the title role of Junie B. Jones. “I really liked the opportunity of playing a central female character with so much comedic force,” she said. “That really appealed to me. It’s a story about–in broad terms–figuring out who you are, which is a big challenge for any stage in life, but I think it is important to communicate to kids that everybody is different and the skills and strengths you have may not be the same as someone else has–and that is OK. That, for me, is one of the overarching messages of the play and I really gravitated to that.”
Graves has performed in multiple children’s theater productions, and this is her second stint with Adventure Theatre MTC. Her first role for the Glen Echo Park-based company was in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in 2013.
“(Children) are a really honest audience and when they have bought into the story you are telling, it is very rewarding because if kids aren’t interested in what you have to say, they will let you know,” Graves said. She noted she can see a visible difference in children when they identify with a character on stage. She also enjoys being able to bring theater to youngsters who don’t always have access to it.
Having Graves as the lead has been a treat, said Hammerly. as Junie often has 16 ideas going on in her head–going from frustrated to happy in a split second, and Graves easily pulls it off. “She helps make the character entertaining without being annoying,” he said. “…She makes her enjoyable and eccentric and funny.”
The 27 “Junie” books were written between 1992 and 2013, so some updates were needed–like getting rid of the chalkboard and erasers references along with replacing seats with yoga balls. Hammerly wanted to make sure the classroom along with a diverse cast resembled what children in the audience know first-hand or have experienced through older siblings. “Having done a lot of children’s theater, this is one of the best scripts I have encountered because it has something for everyone,” Graves said. “…It’s really smart. I think it is going to be fun for the whole family to see this production.”
The is the first time Hammerly is directing a show for young children. Winner of a 2003 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” he had previously appeared at Adventure Theatre in acting roles such as the Cat in “The Cat and the Hat” and Fagin in “Oliver.”
In “Oliver,” the script called for Hammerly to be surrounded by children, which, to his surprise, he enjoyed. “If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘OK. I don’t think that is for me.’ When I started interacting with these kids, I’ll tell you, it is an exceptional experience dealing with kids that young that are this into wanting to either see theater or be part of theater. It is really affirming.”
“Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook” is on stage through Aug. 13 at Adventure Theatre MTC, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd. For dates and times as well as tickets, $19.50, visit www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org or call 301-634-2270. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.