The play that started it all, that has been a mainstay of Imagination Stage since its 2009 inception, received a wonderful gift for the New Year. Its creators — Imagination Stage’s Founding Artistic Director Janet Stanford and Associate Artistic Director Kathryn Chase Bryer –have given “Wake Up, Brother Bear” a new design, new music and new actors.
“I love this show because it was the first and one of our best,” said Bryer who is directing the 2019 production. “It has all the important elements for this age group: a high aesthetic, a simple story this age group (1 to 5 years old) connects with; and a very sensory and physical basis. The kids can hold and touch things; they come on stage and are brought into the story.”
All the shows in this series, Bryer noted, “have a relaxed atmosphere, and are built with the knowledge that smaller children need more supervision and greater flexibility.”
The children in the audience “participate in creating the ending – and it is always the same,” Bryer said, admitting that watching the video still makes her tear up. “All the children receive a small blanket, which is operative in the plot. (As they prepare to hibernate), Big Brother sees Sister Bear shivering and wraps his blanket around her. Then the kids wrap their blankets around him.
“The children are never prompted to do this; it just happens naturally.”
Why do “Wake Up, Brother Bear” again? “We’ve learned a lot since developing our first piece. There was not as much theater around for this age group back then,” said Bryer. “We wanted to apply the new things we’ve learned through subsequent productions and through our partners as the field has evolved.”
Although the storyline remains the same, Stanford rewrote the shadow play section that occurs mid-play with the children on stage under a canopy, and they added a free play component at the end — a development Bryer credited to their experience with Tell Tale Hearts, a British company Imagination Stage worked with on their “Inside Out” show.
After using the same set for “Wake Up, Brother Bear” since its inception, Bryer reached out to Milagros Ponce de Leon “who did our ‘Mouse on the Move’” for an update. The Penn State University’s School of Theatre faculty member earned master of fine arts degrees in studio arts and scenic design from University of Maryland at College Park. Her local scenic design credits include the Olney Theatre Center/Round House coproduction of “In the Heights,” Olney’s “Sweeney Todd” and Ford’s Theatre’s “Ragtime.”
During development week in September, Bryer worked closely with de Leon to come up with the new design and with the actors, allowing them “to work through this simpler and shorter sensory-based, really visual show.” These early childhood shows, Bryer noted, tend to be from a devised point of view in contrast to the productions for older children that Imagination Stage presents in its Lerner Family Theatre.
The original “Wake Up, Brother Bear” show featured a live cellist and a score that consisted mostly of classical music, Bryer said. For the new production, bluegrass multi-instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, ukulele, flute) Moria Todd was engaged to arrange and perform the “mix of found Americana folk music — and a little classical,” Bryer said. Todd was Fern in “Charlotte’s Web,” Bryer noted.
For the roles of Brother and Sister Bear, Bryer “immediately thought” of Takoma Park-based actor-puppeteers Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon. Both are Happenstance Theater company members “who like building and devising shows” and focus on puppet works in their own Alex and Olmsted company. Bryer had worked with the now-married couple previously, both separately and together, in Imagination Stage shows including “The BFG,” “Inside Out” and “Boxes, Boxes, Boxes” as well as its Spanish language version, “Cajas, Cajas, Cajas.”
Thomas, who grew up in Vienna, Virginia, said her “formative training was ballet and I studied theater at Sarah Lawrence College. I combined these disciplines by pursuing an education in physical theater that was honed with The Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia and Le Samovar, Ecole de Clowns, in Paris.” Vernon, from Franklin, Tennessee, studied theater at Eastern Connecticut State University and Middle Tennessee State University, then moved to the metropolitan area in 2001 to pursue a career in theater. They met as performers in the Bulgarian folk culture show “Hopa Tropa!”
The Imagination Stage series, Thomas observed, is unique “in the way it incorporates the audience. The children are seated in a circle around the players. They are engaged with directly; sometimes with music and words, sometimes with gesture.’
As for Vernon, the fact that his character, Brother Bear, never speaks is “one of the things that makes this show special. I love having non-verbal characters in a show because it asks more from the audience to interpret what a character is thinking or feeling.”
Performing for children of this age is exceptional because “this is many of the kids’ first exposure to live theater,” Vernon pointed out. “It’s amazing to see young audiences figure out what’s going on as the show progresses, and how open and honest they are about giving feedback and participating.” Thomas concurred, noting that the young children “are vocal, eager and participatory. I love the experience of inviting them into the story. Their reactions are honest and often very smart.”
“Wake Up, Brother Bear” is one of nine shows in Imagination Stage’s current repertoire. “It did so well the first time,” recalled Bryer, that it was brought back in its original form about six times. This year, she and the rest of the company look forward to welcoming a new generation of tots to accompany the bear siblings on their revamped journey through the seasons.
“Wake Up, Brother Bear” runs from Jan. 11 through Feb. 17 in Imagination Stage’s Christopher and Dana Reeve Studio Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Performances start at 10 and 11:15 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with an ASL-Interpreted show at 11:15 a.m. Feb. 17. Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door. Tickets may be purchased online at www.imaginationstage.org, at the Imagination Stage box office or by calling 301-280-1660.