Nick Olcott has vivid memories of his childhood. In fact, he believes he directs so many children’s theater productions because he can recall what it was like to be a child.
One of his most formative memories came when his brother took his beloved stuffed chimp Zippy, fashioned a parachute out of a plastic bag, put its arms through the holes and threw it out of the window of the family’s moving van to prove it could fly. “My poor, long-suffering father had to turn around a van pulling a boat on a two-lane mountain road so that we could go back and search through the underbrush for Zippy. And I remember distinctly that day that I was hysterical,” he said. “It was as though the world had collapsed. Everything I loved had been taken from me and life would not go on if we could not find Zippy.”
After a minimal search, Zippy was found and Olcott still has him. So when Adventure Theatre MTC asked him to direct “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical”–a production based on the Mo Willems book about a toddler girl, Trixie, who loses her beloved stuffed animal–he knew he could bring personal experience to the show. Losing a beloved toy “is a very real experience for kids,” he said. “What I love about doing children’s theater is I always feel like I get to do the 5-year-old’s version of ‘Hamlet.’ This is the greatest tragedy they can imagine.”
On the Adventure Theatre MTC stage through Oct. 23, the musical features Trixie and her dad walking the streets of New York City to the laundromat. On the return trip home, she realizes Knuffle Bunny is gone, but because she doesn’t know how to talk yet, all her dad hears is gibberish.
“It’s one of the wonderful challenges,” Olcott said of Trixie’s gibberish. “That’s what makes the piece so delicious. To take what is written as gibberish, every word has to mean something to Trixie. …How to turn that gibberish into meaningful communication is just wonderful.”
Suzanne Lane, who plays Trixie, notices the script has very deliberate gibberish words written out similar to pre-speech sounds. “They seem to be pretty carefully written and so I am just taking them and kind of translating them as if it were a foreign language and using that to try and convey my message to dad in the show,” she said. “…It will be one of my bigger memorization challenges, which is kind of surprising because the show is probably going to be an hour long, but just to not have any real words except (spoiler redacted) is going to be hard to memorize. And also in addition to that, people take their cue lines off Trixie, so they have to remember the gibberish too in order to say their line when it comes in.”
Olcott said even though Trixie is speaking nonsense, the audience will understand what she is trying to communicate. “I direct a lot of opera, too, so I am very used to this,” he said. “My singers are singing in Italian, but I want to make it so clear that the audience will know what they are singing even if they don’t understand Italian.”
Scott Harrison, who plays Trixie’s dad, said he is enjoying tackling the show’s physical comedy. He must drag Trixie around when she doesn’t want to move and vice versa. “It’s a whole lot of fun to learn and play around with these people and figure out how to make this show the best it can be,” he said.
Casting took place in May, while rehearsals began the first full week of September. “I love the cast I am working with,” Olcott said. “They are so ready for anything. Ready to dive in and have fun with this story.”
Lane said families of all ages will enjoy the upbeat, fun production. “Mo Willems, his books have really become modern classics for these kids,” she said.
Audience members will get to see a very real story that every kid, or adult that can remember being a child, can relate to and find both touching and funny, cast members agreed. “Trixie has a ballad in gibberish about her lost bunny,” Olcott said. “Every time she sings it, I cry. (The story) gets to the heart, and yet it is very, very funny, too.”
“Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical” is onstage at Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., through Oct. 23. For information and tickets, call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.