July 20, 2018

It's perfect panda-monium at the children's play Paul is NOT a Penguin

UCalgary's Wagonstage summer theatre has been entertaining kids since 1966
Josh Olson (foreground), Rylan Strachan and Elizabet Rajchel perform in UCalgary’s Wagonstage summer kids theatre production of Paul is NOT a Penguin at the Dino Amphitheatre at the Calgary Zoo. A second cast performs the play at UCalgary’s Reeve Theatre.
Josh Olson (foreground), Rylan Strachan and Elizabet Rajchel perform in UCalgary’s Wagonstage summer Tim Nguyen, Citrus Photography

The sparkly styrofoam “penguin egg” is flying through the audience like a hot potato. The young crowd is on its feet collectively juggling the egg — along with the zookeeper’s walkie-talkie — amid yelps and screams of delight.

“Please give those back to me,” cries the actor playing the zookeeper, one hand gripping his safari hat, as he frantically runs up and down the theatre aisle trying to retrieve the prized items.

“Pass them around! Don’t let him get it!” calls out Rocky the Rockhopper penguin, from centre stage. As the audience keeps the zookeeper occupied, the penguins try to hide a big, mysterious crate that the zookeeper has accidentally left in their zoo enclosure.

Suddenly, a baby panda named Paul tumbles out of the crate and into the penguins’ habitat. He rubs his furry white belly and looks around perplexed. Paul may be black and white, just like the penguins, but through humorous encounters and fun-filled audience assistance, the animals soon begin to discover the joys of their differences, too.

Paul tries to explore the penguin pond — the set piece is an enticing inflatable pool filled with blue and green plastic balls. But Paul “doesn’t know how to swim yet!” numerous young audience members warn, encouraging the penguins to dive in and rescue him. Cue all sorts of silly antics.

Paul is hungry. “What do pandas eat?” wonder the penguins. “Doritos!” suggests one audience member as the penguins contemplate their own favourite, fish — before others yell out “No, no, not fish!” and “Give him bamboo!” A glittery green bamboo shoot is quickly discovered.

By the end of the 25-minute play, the kids have rushed the stage to join the daily penguin walk, a.k.a. a lively conga line where everyone walks and talks like the penguins in the play.

How to see Paul is NOT a Penguin, which runs until Aug. 31

The action-packed, interactive play, Paul is NOT a Penguin, is the latest Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) production put on by Wagonstage, a summer stock theatre troupe which began in 1966 at the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts in the Faculty of Arts. It is targeted for audiences from daycare age up to young teens — and performances are often tailored for audiences of different ages.

  • Above, Josh Olson (foreground), Rylan Strachan and Elizabet Rajchel perform in UCalgary’s Wagonstage summer kids theatre production of Paul is NOT a Penguin at the Dino Amphitheatre at the Calgary Zoo.

Since 2015, Wagonstage has partnered with the Calgary Zoo to produce the play. This year, two separate casts are performing the show at the zoo and at the University of Calgary from July 4 to Aug. 31.

At the Calgary Zoo:  The play can be viewed from Wednesdays to Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at the Dino Amphitheatre in Prehistoric Park (free with zoo entry).

At UCalgary: Children enrolled in some UCalgary Mini U summer programs see the play and participate in theatre workshops with the cast on Wednesdays and Fridays at the Reeve Theatre on campus.

Drama student and Wagonstage performer Josh Olson gets the audience going during a performance at the Calgary Zoo.

Drama student and Wagonstage performer Josh Olson gets the audience going during a performance.

Tim Nguyen, Citrus Photography

'They were still talking about the panda'

There were also limited opportunities for local community members to book a performance at UCalgary’s Reeve Theatre. This summer, several local organizations and community groups booked times to see the production, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital, the Centre for Newcomers, the Panorama Hills E-Community Centre, the Highland Park Community Association and the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association Daycare Program. Community group bookings for this summer are now full.

Dicery Cyr, a primary caregiver for a class of 3 1/2 to four-year-olds at the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association Daycare Program, recently attended the play as part of a larger group from the daycare. “The kids really enjoyed the performance, especially the panda,” Cyr says. “They were very engaged with the story. When we got home [to the daycare] they were still talking about the panda.”

One of the most exciting parts of the fieldtrip, Cyr says, was the workshop activity the daycare students did with the cast after the play ended. “The performers were asking the kids to ‘Do a panda’ like they saw in the play, and ‘Do a monkey.’ We really like these kinds of experiences in the community, especially when they have to do with animals,” she says.

Troupe marks 52 years of community engagement

Clem Martini, a drama professor at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, estimates that more than 100,000 local children — and as many parents and adults — have likely viewed Wagonstage summer productions since the program began in 1966.

For its first five years, the theatre troupe was known as the Truck Players, because the group started out performing from the back of a flatbed truck that would drive around to various city parks and be transformed into a mobile stage. In 1971, the troupe was renamed Wagonstage — because the truck started pulling a large wagon (a trailer) filled with costumes and sets.

“Wagonstage has had a profound influence on the theatre community in Calgary,” says Martini, who started working on a book about Wagonstage with the late Kathleen Foreman, a fellow UCalgary professor. “When you do a sampling of who is out there working in local theatre, it’s interesting how many people have passed through or performed or directed or written for it. For example actor Christopher Hunt, and Michael Green, one of the founding members of One Yellow Rabbit — he has passed away — were both involved with Wagonstage.”

Martini himself performed in Wagonstage productions in the summers of 1976 and 1979. In 1981 and 1982, he wrote plays for the program, including one called Escape from L Ten Eleven. Later, as head of the UCalgary Drama Department for a time, he oversaw the productions.

Martini fondly remembers his time as a Wagonstage actor — sometimes performing at four different parks a day. His group even travelled to the towns of Strathmore and Olds for performances. “It was a first introduction to theatre for many of those kids. We gave them the chance to engage and ask questions that you don’t necessarily get in a more formal theatre setting.”

UCalgary’s Wagonstage, a summer stock theatre troupe performs at Olympic Plaza in 1998. The Theatre for Young Audiences group created at the School of Creative and Performing Arts has been performing plays for Calgary kids every summer since 1966.

UCalgary’s Wagonstage, a summer stock theatre troupe performs at Olympic Plaza in 1998.

Wagonstage enriches learning for UCalgary theatre students

While Wagonstage has become a fun-filled introduction to theatre for many generations of Calgary-area children, it was also founded as a way to provide experiential and practical learning for drama students at the newly formed University of Calgary.

“Victor Mitchell, the first head of the drama division at the University of Calgary, saw that engineering students often spent their summers at work internships and he wanted those same kinds of opportunities for theatre students,” says Martini.

The university obtained some funding from the federal government, and in 1971, also established a partnership with the City of Calgary, which was looking to add summer programs for kids. The partnership with the city lasted for several decades. In the late 1960s, UCalgary also established a theatre for young audiences class — now Drama 365 — which has become a training ground for many Wagonstage performers.

“I can’t think of another theatre for young audiences touring company that is sponsored and run at a university as a form of training for actors, directors and writers that exists in Canada, certainly in western Canada,” says Martini.

Meredith Taylor-Parry, a UCalgary MFA student in drama-playwriting, wrote this year’s Wagonstage play as well as last year’s. In fact, Rocky the Rockhopper penguin was a very popular character in last year’s play — and Taylor-Parry loves penguins — so she brought him back for this year’s production, adding Paul the Panda because she knew pandas would be a big hit this summer thanks to the new panda exhibit at the Calgary Zoo.

Writing the Wagonstage plays have been a great complement to Taylor-Parry’s MFA studies. “It has been a wonderful opportunity for me,” she says. “It presents challenges such as writing a play that will appeal to all ages and creating opportunities for the actors to improvise. It also encourages me to focus on the visual component of the story. Text is always of primary importance to me, but children want to watch a character do things more than they want to listen to her talk, and if you write lengthy passages you will lose your audience.”

Theatre students inspired to develop their comedy chops

Sarah Bannister, Amy On and Oderin Tobin, the three members of the Paul is NOT a Penguin  cast performing at the UCalgary campus, also believe their Wagonstage experience has amped up their ability to incorporate humour and improv in their work.

Bannister directed and performed in last year’s Wagonstage production and is also a performer this year. She says the experience has influenced her MFA thesis play, Experiment 1: Why?, which ran this past May.

“All my thesis work is the combination of science and theatre and I really like to use humour and comedy to access that, so working at Wagonstage last year really helped me build my thesis show,” says Bannister, whose MFA focus is drama-directing. “It wasn’t TYA [Theatre for Young Audiences], but it was really, really silly. It took place in a petri dish and we watched an experiment and the audience was on stage. It was immersive. There were lots of puns about being a fungi. I was able to use the principles of what makes a good show for kids to help adults get excited about science.”

For On, a third-year UCalgary drama major, performing in Paul is NOT a Penguin was her first time working with young audiences. “I see myself as a dramatic actor — everything I have done before has been dramatic and dark,” she says. “This performance is fun and goofy. In the beginning, I had a hard time letting myself go and ‘Being a kid.’ But Wagonstage has taught me that I can start delving into comedy now, it has given me the confidence to do that.”

Tobin, another UCalgary drama student and a performer in this year’s play, likes the opportunity Wagonstage provides to interact with kids. “I sometimes find their questions funny and fascinating. There wasn’t stuff like this for me when I was growing up, or if there was I didn’t know about it. It’s interesting to see the kids, and think that, ‘Wow, in 10 years, they could be the ones performing in this play'.” Tobin is also studying education. He says he could see himself becoming a drama teacher one day. “Who knows, I may be working with kids later in life.”

Bannister was also surprised at how much she enjoys spending time with the kids at Wagonstage. “I never really wanted to work with kids, but I just kept ending up working with them. And TYA is so fun to do. It’s just playing! It’s being loud and running around and being silly,” she says. “Working with kids keeps you on your toes. But you also have to stay calm under pressure. You have to get good at rolling with the punches and trusting yourself. It’s an amazing experience to get kids excited about drama.”