Anger—it’s an emotion everyone has experienced and seems to be on the rise lately. It’s a natural feeling and often warranted, but how individuals, including children, handle that anger is important.
The latest production of the Wheaton-based InterAct Story Theatre introduces audiences to beloved sheriff Pufferfish Pat, whose only flaw is an inability to control his anger. This guy can do anything—teach a bobcat to waltz, even lasso a storm cloud to save the Old West town of Gravy Gulch from flooding rain. Everyone loves him for his charm and ability to protect their town. But when something makes him mad, Sheriff Pat loses control and blows up like a pufferfish, breaks things and scares his friends. The play invites children to explore their own feelings of anger and help Pat take control of his.
Written and directed by company’s artistic director Ali Oliver-Krueger, “The Legend of Pufferfish Pat: A Tall Tale for Mad Times” runs through Sept. 23 at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring. It’s a rare chance to see the company in a theater setting with all the bells and whistles of full production.
As the town of Gravy Gulch prepares for its annual Great Gravy Cookoff and Fashion Festival, the cowboys and townsfolk worry the pressure will boil over and Sheriff Pat will ruin the event with an outburst. Pat asks his friends for suggestions about how to help him with his problem. But when black hat-wearing cowboy One-Eyed shows up, wanting to run Pat out of town, will the ornery sheriff be able to keep his cool?
The interactive show engages audiences by making them the people of Gravy Gulch. Sing-a-longs and elicited sounds encourage children to connect with the story in a personal way. The “audiences are the most important actors in the play,” Oliver-Kruger said.
The cast of three plays several characters apiece, with some surprising choices. Pufferfish Pat is played by Kelsey Yudice while the mayor’s wife, Ma Murchison, is played by Alex Miletich IV. Blind auditions ensure actors of all ages, gender identity and race can play any part.
Oliver-Krueger took on the role of artistic director in 2009, transforming the company—founded in 1981 by Lenore Blank Kelner—into a nonprofit organization focused on bringing quality theater experiences to underserved communities. “Everyone learns through the arts,” she said. Schools are integrating arts programming into the curriculum in creative and unusual ways. By traveling to schools in the area, InterAct’s performances “inspire learning, growth and ways to connect,” Oliver-Kruger said. Between performances and artist-in-residency programs, the organization reaches nearly 20,000 children annually.
Pufferfish Pat’s character was born from a chance encounter Oliver-Kruger had while waiting in a local school’s administrative office. The playwright overheard a conversation between the principal and a little boy who had been sent to the office, most likely for aggressive behavior. “The principal was so gentle,” Oliver-Kruger said, “asking the child [to describe] his feelings.” The answer was astonishing. The boy said he wanted “to be good,” but explained, “sometimes my head feels up, up, up but my body feels down,” he said, “and my face gets hot.”
“He was a hero,” Oliver-Kruger said, and the boy inspired her to write “The Ballad of Pufferfish Pat.” Her poem addressed angry feelings of a good, respected man in the town of Gravy Gulch, framed in the tradition of Western tall tales about folk heroes like Davey Crockett. Then she and her team consulted with mental health professionals and teachers to develop a story that educates while it entertains. A surprising aspect of her research revealed that anger is a gendered experience, and she wanted to explore “how we can uncouple gender from anger.”
In the March 2003 issue of the American Psychological Association’s magazine, Melissa Dittmann reported on the work of Dr. Sandra Thomas (among others), who has researched both male and female anger patterns and expressions. According to Thomas, “Men have been encouraged to be more overt with their anger. If [boys] have a conflict on the playground, they act it out with their fists. Girls have been encouraged to keep their anger down.” Dittman’s article went on to explain that researchers have concluded neither method is healthy.
So how did Oliver-Kruger apply her research to the tale of poor Pufferfish Pat? “Kids should know that it’s OK to be angry,” she said, “and [develop] healthy ways to manage that.” The play encourages children to try different methods to control anger and understand that sometimes a method will work in situations and other times it won’t—holding your breath and counting to 10, for example. Before the show starts, children participate in crafts, talk about how anger feels and are asked to offer up ideas for how Sheriff Pat can manage his anger. The playbill also includes resources for parents and teachers to help children manage angry feelings.
“The Legend of Pufferfish Pat: A Tall Tale for Mad Times” runs through Sept. 23 at the Cultural Arts Center Montgomery College, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Tickets range from $10 to $13. Call 301-879-9305 or visit https://interactstory.com/pufferfish-pat. View this event on CultureSpotMC here. Learn more about InterAct Story Theatre here.