The Birthday Feast

October 10 - 25
Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center Auditorium

H-T Preview

Veggies Fly in Cardinal’s First Original Work

One designed to magically transport audiences

by Rebecca Townsend Special to the H-T

A recent visit to the Cardinal Stage Company rehearsal space on South Walnut found a group of actors awash in produce — potatoes, onions, garlic and more, flying back and forth around the stage — as the players sang about soup.

5430e83c4c9ec.imageThe rehearsal marked one of the last before the Oct. 10 premiere of Cardinal’s first piece of original work, ““The Birthday Feast”,” a children’s musical written by local literary luminary Scott Russell Sanders.

Cardinal founder and director Randy White, watching with intense concentration from behind his desk, tossed in a comment every few minutes and, almost as often, scurried over to the stage to coach the actors on everything from physical positioning to line delivery.

“We’re magically moving through space and time; I’m not even remotely interested in realism,” White tells the cast. “This should be magical. There’s no reason it can’t be fun!”

Perhaps the word “fun” is not the first to come to mind when one considers kids and vegetables, but that may change once the community digests ““The Birthday Feast”.” The play was written to cultivate awareness among children about food culture, though not with traditional “eat your vegetables, kids, because they’re good for you” messaging.

“We don’t do pedantic theater,” White said in an interview the following day. As with all Cardinal productions, the primary goal is simply to create great theatre. For White, that means engaging the audience to a point where they forget about space and time, where they are not looking at their watches, but rather are “intellectually, emotionally, emotively and empathetically” connected with the experience.

“It also helps if it’s well-sung, well acted and all that,” he added with a smile.

The story tracks a 10-year-old girl named Maddie on a quest to provide a great birthday surprise for her mother; she drafts a couple friends and her dog to help. Their adventures transform the kids’ notions of just what makes a great gift.

Lola Kennedy, the 13-year-old actress who plays Maddie, has starred in several previous Cardinal productions, including Annie, Willy Wonka and Pippi Longstocking.

But “The Birthday Feast” is different, she said, because it has allowed her to help shape something new.

“I thought it was really cool that it was a world premiere,” she said. “It’s really cool to be part of production and give your word on how it’s made.”

White, who has been involved in directing several new musicals during the course of his career — but not until now as both director and producer — is also excited about the challenge.

5430e83c404fd.image“The commitment you’re making and the exposure to failure is so thrilling, so amplified with a new play because everything is you — all of us that are collectively creating from scratch,” he said.

The prospect that the play could go on to a life beyond Cardinal in the pantheon of American children’s theatre, he added, “is beyond thrilling.”

Actions speak louder than words

The production marks the sixth time Cardinal has produced a play to help the IU College of Arts and Sciences bring its “Themester” beyond the campus borders and into the community at large. More than 10,000 local students have viewed a Themester-related play since the partnership began.

As White mulled this year’s theme, “Eat, Drink, Think: Food from Art to Science,” he concluded that the time had come for Cardinal to commission an original work. Thus began the collaboration with Sanders, who retired from IU in 2009 as a Distinguished Professor of English and has authored more than 20 books of fiction and non-fiction — many of which address ecological issues.

In writing “The Birthday Feast”, Sanders set out to create compelling characters capable of embodying the deeper messages he hoped the play would convey.

“It’s not so much what they say, it’s how they behave,” Sanders said. The gardeners featured in the flying produce scene, for instance, “clearly rejoice in their garden.” Their actions convey how pleasurable growing one’s food can be, how the work not only yields good things to eat, but offers an opportunity to exercise, to get out in the fresh air and sunshine, to see birds and butterflies.

“The play conveys that, but it doesn’t say that,” Sanders said. “What I’m trying to do is express attitudes and values about food and where it comes from that’s actually embodied in the lives of people.”

He found inspiration in writing from interacting with his five grandchildren and enjoying the “inventive whimsy of young children.”

“Their minds are much more elastic, much less involved in preconceptions and stereotypes,” Sanders said. Children, he added, have “the effect on me, I feel, of keeping my imagination young.”

The experience of becoming a grandparent also caused Sanders to think more about the future, not just for his grandkids, but also the broader social and ecological inheritance contemporary society is leaving to future generations. He views the play as a contribution to a larger conversation about how to best serve the interests of children.

“If legislators, executives in board rooms and individuals ask themselves the question before making any decision: ‘Is this going to be good for children?’ It would revolutionize how we conduct our lives.”

Like Sanders, composer Alex Crowley, who wrote eight original songs and two refrains for ““The Birthday Feast”,” also drew on his experiences with kids, particularly writing silly songs for his own children.

“This is exactly where I like to be,” Crowley said. “In writing the music, my hope was to put enough of the package around what was being said in lyrics and story so that in a week or a month, they’d still be able to sing the songs — not because I wanted them to sing the melody, but the lyrics that accompany it.”

A leap of faith

Since starting Cardinal in 2006, White has heard all kinds of reasons for why people may be reluctant to step up and buy a ticket to any given production. Perhaps the subject matter is challenging, maybe it’s unfamiliar, maybe it’s too familiar, maybe a kids’ show won’t be fun for adults. White asks people to have faith, especially if they’ve watched and enjoyed any previous Cardinal productions.

“I encourage people to be brave and committed to theater,” White said. “Go for it, just go for it. I guarantee we won’t do a bad piece of theatre … I guarantee that you’ll be engaged in some kind of way.”

People may not identify directly with the characters, but they should feel connected to their struggles to make sense of “the craziness that is the world,” White explained. “We all benefit when we come together as a community to examine what it is to be human.”