Spotlight on Adventure Theatre’s Mirandy and Brother WindBy Michael Clark • Jan 28th, 2011 • Category: Interviews
Adventure Theatre, Glen Echo, MD (through February 13)
Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, DC (February 25-March 13)
Through March 13
1:10 w/ no intermission
Interviewed January 27th, 2011
Mike Clark: Today I’m talking with Michael Bobbit, the producing artistic director at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Maryland. Thanks for talking with me today.
Michael Bobbitt: Thanks for having me.
Mike: So Adventure Theatre just opened Mirandy and Brother Wind. Tell me about that show.
Michael: Mirandy and Brother Wind is based on a Cal Ducott honor book written by Patricia Makiseck. The book came out in 1988. It is a fictional African American children’s book. Patricia Makisek is a prolific African American children’s book writer. This is a live staged musical adaptation of the book. It is a charming story about a little girl in 1906 who lives in South Carolina who wants to win the annual cake walk. She hears about the legend of Brother Wind, who is a fictional character who can kick up his heels and twirl and swirl and so she thinks he would be the best dance partner to help her with the cake walk. The reason why she wants to win the cake walk dance is because she likes cake (and everybody likes cake) so she becomes very determined to catch him so she can win the cake and everyone can be proud of her and pay attention to her.
Mike: Tell us more about a cake walk.
Michael: The cake walk is a dance created by African Americans during the Slavery Period and later became an exhibition dance. Basically it was sort of a nice way of mocking the slave masters and the way they danced. Cake walks were done at sort of private times while the slaves were trying to entertain themselves. No harm was meant, it was just sort of a way of imitating the way the European slave masters danced. When the slaves were emancipated it just became a way to celebrate and dance together.
Mike: So this is taking place early 1900’s or so?
Michael: Yes, the play actually takes place in 1906, but it is sort of loosely referred to as the early 1900’s. There is no specific thing that happens in the play that is specific to that date.
Mike: Felicia Curry is Mirandy.
Michael: She’s Mirandy. She is one of DC’s most well known actresses. Nominated for several Helen Hayes awards which is the big DC theater award. She really is kind of a power house of a performer. I secretly started writing this play with her in mind way back in 2007; hoping that I could get it produced and get her to star. The stars aligned and she was free and available and she is just amazing in this show.
Mike: Is it a really large cast?
Michael: For us it’s large. It’s a cast of eight. We usually do two to six actors. But they fill the stage nicely and I think with the joyous music and the joyous dance in the show it was important to have enough people on stage to you feel that when you were in the audience. Felicia is the title character, but I would have to say the whole cast really steps up and matches her energy and her skill.
Mike: Some of the other shows we have seen at Adventure, there is interaction from the crowd. Does that happen in this show, too?
Michael: You probably saw Spot’s Birthday Party.
Michael: Not as much. Spot’s Birthday Party was so great because the kids were literally invited to his party . And so we wanted to make sure they were involved and the whole show was sort of designed as a way for them to enjoy his party. Most of the shows we do are not interactive it was just perfect for that play. For Mirandy you just sort of walk into the world and are sort of transported back into the world as opposed to participating in the world.
Michael: In addition to the fantastic cakewalk dance you are also going to see dances like the hambone which was sort of another traditional African American dance. You will see things like spoons and jugs. We really sort of have a romping fun time.
Mike: So how did you, the director, choreographer, learn the dances? Is that just something they knew and then you teach the actors?
Michael: No. What was difficult about the piece is that we had to go a little bit beyond internet searches because there is not much out there. There are a few clips of people doing cakewalk dances and actually most of those were more exhibition dances than they were what really happened. We had to back to library crawls. My writing partner and myself who lives in Houston, Texas sort of went through some expensive library crawls to find photos and find old video reels of those dances. Some of those dances are still handed down.
Our cakewalk consultant was the Dance Institute of Washington. Their artistic director Fabian Barns was a principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem and they learned some of those dances when he was with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. So he had some more specific information for us. And luckily since those dances were mostly created for pedestrians and regular people they are not hard dances to learn. They are just sort of heavily stylized. So it was not hard to teach them.
Mike: So what is the music like? I assume it’s not some kind of full orchestra.
Michael: One of the wonderful things about children’s theatre, and one of the pitfalls, is that often because our ticket prices are so low, you can’t really quite afford to have a full orchestra so we track a lot of the music. But for this show that was a plus because we wanted to make sure we were using sounds that would have been around during that period. So my collaborator created the tracks for the show. He was able to find some really great authentic synthesized sounds. The music just sort of transports you in the world. But you will hear ragtime, you’ll hear cakewalk, you’ll hear hambone. You’ll hear an old African rhythmn called Jajuba. It is all sort of beautifully mixed with modern musical theater sounds. It’s very fun.
Mike: You said you co-wrote the play based off the book. What was that like? Is that a hassle getting the rights to be able to do that?
Michael: I was surprised. It was not very hard. My inquiry that I sent out the response came back within a week. Patricia Macisek the author was very excited about having us do it. I took awhile before I finished it because I finished writing it because I did not know if Adventure Theatre was quite ready to produce it. It is our first African American musical or show in our 60 year history. So I wanted to wait for a couple of years for our audiences to know that they are going to see all kinds of stories on our stage and all kinds of faces on our stage. This year seemed like the right year to get it produced.
So I started writing it in 2007. I did a lot of writing back then and then I kind of put it aside for awhile until Adventure Theatre was ready to produce it. Then we got really heavy into the writing in 2009, I think. The basic story is so fantastic. It has music and dance written all over it. It has family, it has history, it has heart. So it was not hard to expand on that. The places where we expanded were the places where we were just trying to figure out how to make it all theatrical. Of course that’s the fun part. The part I like a lot.
Mike: You are partnered with The African Continuum Theatre Company. The show will actually be moving in a few weeks.
Michael: Yes. I always think of challenges as opportunities. Again, this is our first time doing an African American piece. I wanted to align myself with partner that has a history of creating African American pieces. Nurturing African American works and also had an audience base that would really appreciate the show. So the first thing that popped into my mind was to give Joanne Williams, the executive director, a call at the African Continuum Theatre Company. She jumped on board.
The partnership has been great. We have been partnering on not only the material, but on the designers, the marketing, the outreach. It has just been really great. I think what’s going to be fantastic it taking the whole show down to the Atlas for three weeks. So if you don’t get to see it in Glen Echo Park you can see it down town in a bigger space which I think is going to be a lot of fun.
The biggest challenge was we had to create a show that could transfer easily.
Mike: Those are really different spaces.
Michael: It is a different space. The way they are shaping the room down there it is not going to be too offensively different. The biggest challenge is when it’s at the festival it has to tear down and set up within an hour for every performance. We had to design something that can break down and get set up every day for the fourteen or so performances that we have down there.
Mike: Well it sounds like a great show.
Michael: If you get a chance to see it you are going to leave tapping your toes and wanting to learn how to dance. And surprisingly you find it a very moving. I see people getting choked up. It’s interesting because it’s just about a little girl who wants to really win so people can pay attention to her, but in the process she learns about slavery and freedom and having fun and friendship. I think that’s all things that kids can relate to nowadays.
Mike: Are the kids that are seeing the show, are they getting it or do they think “Oh, I’m being taught something.”
Michael: Oh yeah. I believe that children’s theatre is meant to entertain especially in our area because the kids get so much information in school that it’s nice to entertain them for a little while. Often times I see plays where the message is so intense and the kids are getting banged over the head with message. I find that they get it. They are smarter than we assume they are. So if you can find a way to entertain them and give them a message at the same time it is truly a great thing.
Mike: What age is appropriate for this show?
Michael: Four and up. The music and the dancing and the bright colors. There is a little bit of puppetry in the show that the younger ones are getting it. The kids that are really going to get it are five, six, and seven year olds. But the four year olds are really having a fun time.
Mike: So how can people get tickets and how long does the show run?
Michael: It runs at Adventure Theatre until February 15 and then it moves to the Atlas from the 25th through March 13th. You can find tickets at www.adventuretheatre.org.
Mike: Is it evenings or weekends or is it daytime?
Michael: Weekends during the daytime. We have weekday student matinees for school groups at 10:30 AM. Then on the weekends the performances are at 11:00 and 2:00 at Glen Echo Park and then I think 1:00 and 4:00 when it is at the Atlas in DC.
Mike: Thanks very much for talking with me. I do appreciate it.
Michael: Thank you so much.
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