She plays a stuffed to rabbit that gets loved to life, but Alex De Bard was pretty hard on her own toys. “I went through so many stuffed animals as a kid,” laughed De Bard, 23, who plays the title role in “The Velveteen Rabbit” at Adventure Theatre MTC this holiday season. “I destroyed them: I would love on them so hard!”
But that, according to the play — adapted from Margery Williams’ classic children’s book by local playwright Patrick Flynn — is exactly what is required for stuffed animals to become real. In it, the Velveteen Rabbit, a Christmas present, gets cast aside for new-fangled mechanical toys; is re-discovered and declared the favorite; and faces destruction with the kind of courage and love that earns her the ultimate reward: realness.
It’s a big idea for the young audiences at Adventure Theatre. De Bard admitted that seeing the children sitting in rapt attention as the play unfolds has taken a bit of getting used to. “You don’t have to be up clapping and laughing to show that you’re having a good time,” she observed. “And it’s a very good lesson in how theatre is going to be for the rest of their lives.”
De Bard, who grew up singing in the Bronx and Poughkeepsie, New York, said her parents had read her “The Velveteen Rabbit” as a child, even if her memory of those bedtime stories is hazy. “I knew the story before I jumped into it,” she said. “But the play is a bit different.”
Unlike De Bard’s previous roles in theatre for young adults, playing the Velveteen Rabbit means taking on a quieter persona, but that’s not to say there’s no action in the show, as an adventurous Child (played by Eirin Stevenson) and a plethora of puppets depict a world of wonder and fantasy. “The whole show has been such a spectacle,” she said. “Working with puppets and how they move — it shows how powerful a child’s imagination can be.
“You see these things that look like normal toys,” she added, “and then they start talking to you. It’s so amazing.”
Playing the Velveteen Rabbit is a great fit for De Bard, a sporty kid who gave up on playing basketball because she was only five feet tall, and focused on performing instead. “I tried theatre and I fell in love with it,” she said. “I did it all through high school and said, ‘I think I need to major in this in college.’”
That’s what brought her to the D.C. area: De Bard earned a bachelor of arts degree in theatre from the Catholic University of America and landed her first job post-graduation at Adventure Theatre.
Flynn, the playwright who adapted the Margery Williams story, is also a Catholic University alumnus who’s returning to Adventure Theatre after adapting “Tinkerbell” from the Peter Pan stories of English author J. M. Barrie. For “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Flynn said, he looked at the online opinions of the book’s die-hard fans as a guide for what keep and what to expand upon.
“The book is very short, which is one of the challenges,” he explained. “I researched what elements of the story are considered sacred, what I could not change — the ‘bumpers.’
“I was very careful to include those sacred little moments from the book, and then expand on them.” The expansion allows the production to explore the world using puppets as well as an ensemble cast; the playwright sees “The Velveteen Rabbit” as an inspiration for beloved modern children’s tales, most notably “Toy Story.”
And, he noted, the debate between ‘modern’ and ‘old-fashioned’ toys has been around long before our digital age. “There’s a lot in the book about how these toys that wind up, these ‘new-fangled’ mechanical toys, are not as satisfying to children as the stuffed toys, the old toys, are,” said Flynn. “Well, that’s a discussion we’re still having. It’s even more prescient now: the screen time kids want versus trying to nurture imagination.”
Flynn became a playwright because his own imagination was nurtured through theatre. “I was a very rambunctious kid, hard to contain,” he explained. Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, a teacher put him in a class play at a very young age. “She gave me a lot to do, and I was good at it and enjoyed the attention,” he said, noting that his mother kept the momentum going with theatre classes and community theatre shows.
He came to the D.C. area for college, earning a bachelor of arts degree in media studies from Catholic University and a master’s degree in film and video from American University, then worked in film in New York and Los Angeles. “My wife and I decided, after our son was born, to move east,” he said. “I also decided to shift gears, to try my hand at theatre as a playwright.”
Director Jenna Duncan took a less circuitous path. Associate Artistic Director/Casting Director at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, Duncan came to the area from her native Vermont to pursue a bachelor of arts degree in theatre at George Washington University.
“I was really a sports kid growing up,” she said. “I played soccer, lacrosse, tennis; I was a ski racer.” She did musicals in high school, too, and originally planned to study journalism in college. “But I thought, I guess I’m just going do theatre and see where it goes,” she said. Where it went was directing; now based in the D.C. area, she relishes collaboration and sees herself “more as an editor than a dictator” when she’s in the director’s chair.
“The Velveteen Rabbit” reflects this philosophy, appealing to a range of ages and attention spans in the audiences. “It’s multi-generational in a great way, not just directed at kids,” she observed. “Because it’s an adaptation, there are some fun moments that aren’t in the original story, and it’s more action-packed than you might expect.”
Despite the action and adventure, Duncan added, Adventure Theatre’s “The Velveteen Rabbit” is “emotionally deep. The idea of ‘being real’ is something most people turn over in their brains for their whole lives. To start talking about it at such a young age is what makes this show different.”
De Bard agreed. “These are complex topics that I think a lot of parents might struggle to explain to their children,” she said. “Like, ‘what does real mean?’ and ‘what is love?’ and how does sacrifice play a role in loving someone?”
Topics that make “The Velveteen Rabbit,” in the director’s opinion, an excellent holiday offering for families to enjoy together. “I think the reason it fits so well in the holiday slot is because of its themes of friends, family, love and its multigenerational appeal,” said Duncan. “It ends happy, but at one point, the rabbit really thinks she’s sacrificed her life for her child, and it takes a lot to delve into those themes so fearlessly.
“I hope it shows we know how smart children are, that we can entrust them to explore deeper stories,” she added. “And I hope that families go home and really talk about it.”
“The Velveteen Rabbit” runs through Jan. 1 at Adventure Theatre-MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. For tickets, $20.50, call 301-634-2270 or visit adventuretheatre-mtc.org.