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Paying a visit to ‘Mr. Ben’s Playhouse’ Featured

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Paying a visit to ‘Mr. Ben’s Playhouse’ (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2021)

BANGOR – There’s a brand-new Saturday morning crew coming to screens near and far courtesy of Penobscot Theatre Company.

“Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” is the latest offering as part of PTC’s Digitus Theatrum season, a collection of digital and streaming works assembled as a way to carry forward the theatre’s mission in the face of the ongoing pandemic.

The show, consisting of five 15-minute episodes, is inspired by an assortment of children’s programming and features a motley crew of people and puppets, including a number of favorites from the greater PTC community. The first episode, with the theme of “Imagination,” arrived on Jan. 9, with subsequent episodes – addressing a variety of themes ranging from listening to fitness to empathy – landing each following Saturday.

All five episodes can be purchased for $40 and all will remain available throughout the series run. If you’d like to purchase access to “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” or get more information, visit the Penobscot Theatre website at www.penobscottheatre.org or call the box office at 942-3333.

It all started with an idea.

Ben Layman – director of education for Penobscot Theatre, leader of PTC’s Dramatic Academy and titular Mr. Ben of “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” – had been trying to find ways to stay connected with his many students during the early days of the pandemic.

“When we first had to go virtual and leave our lives at the theater back in March,” Layman said. “I had to take a while to get catch my breath and figure out how we were going to serve our students, how we were going to stay alive as an education department.

“My first instinct was just to keep myself on camera every day,” he continued. “So I went on camera twice a day reading books for our students just to keep my face out there, to remind them that we're still here and I'm not going anywhere. That we’re there.”

The experience of maintaining that contact led Layman to wonder about potentially doing more. He considered a number of thoughts, but they all led back to the same singular question.

“Can I do a kids’ show out of my living room?”

Layman communicated the idea to PTC Artistic Director Bari Newport, but he quickly realized that it was a project much bigger than what he could handle by himself, leading him to shelve the idea for the time being. But when he started talking to Brad LaBree and Kat Johnson, that’s when the seed of what would become “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” truly began to grow.

“I got a call from Bari one day with this idea that Ben had,” LaBree said. “The title was already there, though I pushed back initially; I thought ‘Playhouse’ was a rip-off of Pee-Wee [Herman] and I wanted to do ‘Clubhouse’ and we had this back and forth. Then I wound up realizing that ‘Mr. Ben's Playhouse’ just sounded … awesome. I just needed to give in to the magic.”

“Brad and I and Kat have been friends now for a long time,” added Layman. “Brad had this passion to write the episodes. I mean, he asked me for a lot of input, but it was really his brainchild. And then Kat created this wonderful playground and all these delightful puppet characters started coming to life and that’s the evolution.”

LaBree went on to talk about how this is the sort of project he’s long wanted to undertake.

“I have a list of dream jobs,” he said. “And [something like] this was high up on the list, something that I'd always wanted to do. So immediately I was interested in it and ran home and told Kat about the idea.

“From there, in my mind it morphed into ‘Okay, I want to continue PTC's mission of education, but I also want to remind the viewers of why they love PTC’ and so I wanted to try to create that.”

The aesthetic of “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” – from the puppets to the props to the set – was the purview of Johnson, who crafted and created much of what you’ll see on screen. It’s a distinctive, yet familiar look.

“The colors that were chosen were kind of the purples and dark colors [that match the Opera House] and then the really vibrant colors were all chosen specifically to compliment that,” said Johnson. “From there, it kind of took on a life of its own.”

LaBree went on to talk about the fundamentals behind the sort of show they wanted it to be.

“I thought this would be a great opportunity to use theatrical lessons like listening and empathy and to combine them with like real life lessons,” he said. “So we created scenarios for the characters to highlight those values. Then, it was a lot of time pacing around the living room coming up with jokes and seeing how I could use different PTC players as characters and guest stars.”

(Editor’s note: The author of this piece plays one such character on the show. No spoilers, but if you’ve met him in real life, you’ll doubtless be able to tell which one.)

From there, it was about working out how to structure the show.

“We decided on 15-minute episodes split between the playhouse and the puppets, trying to get some sort of educational theme across while still being entertaining,” LaBree said. “That was the line that I really tried to try to walk – hopefully I did.

“It's kind of a love letter to all of the Saturday morning shows,” he continued. “I always wanted to do that; it's a dream come true for me. If any one kid watches this in their PJs with a full bowl of cereal on a Saturday morning, then I’m happy. We tried to borrow a lot of influences from that Saturday morning vibe.”

That confluence of influences is thoroughly reflected in the production design of the show, both in terms of form and function.

“I wanted it to essentially look like Ben’s living room,” said Johnson. “I wanted it to be as if Ben had a place in the theatre that WAS Ben. A place that reflected his aesthetic, his attitude, his likes – that’s where the color scheme springs from, the wines and the purples. I wanted those hints of the macabre, those natural history elements – Ben.

“But I also wanted to incorporate pieces of the theatre,” she continued. “I pulled in props and things that had been used in shows. In the back on a windowsill, you’ll see the letters D and A for Dramatic Academy. There’s all these tiny things – there’s a portrait of Ben from a previous show, there are these wonderful old circus posters.”

Johnson also discussed some tangible ways in which the show’s primary influences were brought together and evoked.

“You have the crazy patterned wallpaper,” she said. “That’s a direct reference to ‘Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.’ If you really look at the way that set was designed, it’s almost like it was on a series of separate flats up against each other, and each flat had this crazy cacophonous pattern or visual element happening. The design of the set itself, the layout, is actually a direct reference to ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ The way he comes down off that landing into the space, having a seat, taking off his shoes … I wanted to kind of incorporate all of that together.”

Creating this kind of vivid, engaging space is an impressive feat – particularly one that manages to be as both stylish and substantive as this. However, believe it or not, that’s only half of the equation. The world of the puppets – the Opera House Gang, the crew of goofballs responsible for looking after the theatre while all the people are gone – exists largely separately. It has its own set of circumstances … and challenges.

“You won't see a whole lot of overlap,” said LaBree. “We’re using Mr. Rogers rules; he never entered the Land of Make-Believe. You’ve got the folks of the playhouse and the puppets in the gang, but they don’t really intersect.

“In my mind, I thought there would be some kid out there worrying that no one was taking care of the theater if no one's there. So they're actually a crew in my mind, hired to take care of the Opera House while it's empty; they say that pretty much immediately. Oh, and that it is the best job that they’ve ever had. ‘This is great!’ There are – I call them ‘creatures’ – that Mr. Ben talks to in the playhouse, but he doesn’t interact with the gang. He talks about them – at the end, he emphasizes the valuable lesson learned and all that – but never engages with them directly.”

Those “creatures” are also puppets, albeit not the same kind of puppet. They are much more like anthropomorphized objects and operate as such.

“The puppets in the playhouse are very much like the puppets in ‘Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,’ like Chairy and all of those. They exist in the space with Ben.” said Johnson.

(Note: In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go too deeply into just how many “creatures” are to be found in the playhouse, but rest assured – there are more than you think there are. Some expected, others very much not. Enjoy discovering them along the way.)

We’ve talked a lot about puppets, but Mr. Ben isn’t the only human we’ll see on the screen along the way.

“There’s a special human guest in each episode,” said Layman. “I get to talk to them. Basically, either they’re bringing me to a lesson point or I’m bringing them to a lesson point. We’re sharing together – it’s really a lot of fun. Just a sheer delight.”

But make no mistake – while Mr. Ben does spend some time with guests, he’s also onscreen by himself a significant amount. It’s a very different sort of performing from the stage work to which Layman is accustomed.

“For me, I felt a lot of weird pressure, I think, to deliver in front of the camera,” Layman said. “I wasn’t used to the process of acting in front of the camera; it’s very different. But it didn’t feel like I was alone. Kind of the opposite – everything felt so alive. I was coming into something and integrating myself into this wonderfully realized thing that Brad and Kat had worked on so diligently. We had this wonderful room full of people working and I just stepped into it and did my job.

“I didn’t feel alone,” he continued. “I felt really safe with Brad and Kat and their ideas. Everything felt very clear. I will say that I relished those moments where the guests came in – all of my friends who came onto the set. I’ve missed working with my friends so much. A lot of the time, the only interaction that I get with some of those friends is when we do a show together. I loved seeing them again.”

The actual construction of the season – the storylines, the scripts, etc. – was a process in and of itself, with each individual episode having its own unique development timeline, from the theme on down.

“The themes of the episodes came from a conversation Ben and I had on his porch – social distanced of course – and we were talking about what we were going to do,” LaBree said. “We had decided on the five 15-minute episodes; as production manager, it was up to me to figure out just what I could produce with any kind of confidence.

“So we’re sitting on the porch and I asked Ben ‘Well, what are the themes?’ Almost immediately, he said that he wanted to follow along with lessons that he found important in his teaching. Using your imagination, listening, learning how to be heard, health and fitness and empathy – he really rattled them off just like that and it was sort of a moment. It was like ‘Well, we have our topics’ – no need to fight it anymore, my wheels just started turning.”

“Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” operates episodically – there is no real grand overarching storyline. Each of the individual episodes has its own energy, something the team rapidly grew to understand in the process of developing the scripts. Since each script was different, it stands to reason that some would be easier to assemble than others. It’s tough to predict the way a creative process is going to play out – this one was no exception.

“Kat was helping me with this as I was editing one of the episodes,” said LaBree. “She said ‘Each one of these things is different. They each have their own value. They're not all going to be wacky fun crazy times, because we are trying to teach something about the theater and to also impart some sort of value into the viewer’s life and just reinforce some good positive things. It’s all coming from a place of love.”

Now, I’m not presuming to speak for everyone out there, but I know that I had one question that I very much wanted answered – just how many puppets are we talking here? It’s an impressive array, to be sure, particularly when you bear in mind that every one of them was designed and crafted by Johnson.

In the playhouse, you’ve got Penny the Propbox, Lumie the Spotlight, Franny and Sal the theater chairs/old couple and a handful of adorable talking plants. As for the Opera House Gang, our primaries are Rufus and Chops, joined by Tony, Cassandra, Roger, Spidey, Spoonie, Boxy and Carol. Add it up and you’ve got 13 different puppets being built (not counting the plants).

So how long did it take? Johnson heard the question and laughed. Obviously, it was a massive amount of time. That’s not to say that it was some sort of ordeal for her. Quite the contrary.

“It was SO much fun,” she said. “And it was a wonderful project to engage with – particularly now, when we’re spending so much time at home.”

Of course, while they’ve done the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” features more than just these three. A number of familiar faces appear over the course of the series, as character voices, guest stars or both. There’s myself – as mentioned in the earlier editor’s note – but others include Jen Shepard, Christie Robinson, Zach Robbins, Birdie Sawyer, Ira Kramer, Grace Livingston-Kramer, Julie Lisnet and Bangor city councilor Angela Okafor.

“Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” is an undeniably ambitious undertaking, a labor of love that has seen many people devoting scores of hours to bringing it to fruition. This is a project brought to life by necessity, an effort by PTC to continue its mission and maintain its artistic connection to the community. It is charming and clever, a sweet-tempered and sly paean to Saturday mornings gone by.

So if you’re a kid (or just a kid at heart), you should plan on pouring yourself a big bowl of Lucky Charms and sitting down to spend a little time with Mr. Ben and the Opera House Gang. Go ahead and pay a visit to “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” – you’ll be glad you did.

(For more information about “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” and the rest of PTC’s Digitus Theatrum season or to purchase access, visit the theatre’s website at www.penobscottheatre.org or call the box office at 942-3333.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 January 2021 18:24

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