‘Bunny’ audience doesn’t hold back
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Dec. 16, 2011
Distractions in a theater - the digitized ditty of a cellphone ring, the crinkling of a candy wrapper, an ill-timed coughing spasm echoing off the rafters - can be sudden and disorienting for an actor. But Tia Shearer and Paul Edward Hope have learned to be utterly unflappable. Performing for 5-year-olds will do that.
The pair star in "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical," an adaptation of Mo Willems's Caldecott Award-winning book about a little girl who loses her favorite stuffed toy at the laundromat and - too young to speak - can't articulate her horror to her father. The audience outbursts, whether the actors are performing in New Jersey or Montana, tend to follow predictable trends.
"There's a point when we finally ask the audience, 'Have you seen Knuffle Bunny?' and this is maybe two-thirds into the show, so they've been holding onto their responses the whole time and squirming and squeaking and squealing," says Shearer, who plays toddler Trixie. "So finally they yell out, 'He's in the laundromat!' "
It's a moment in the show - which is ending its traveling run where it began, at the Kennedy Center - that opens the verbal floodgates, which, during a recent performance, proved difficult to reseal.
"We tried for a moment to reason with them," says Hope, who plays Trixie's father. "But then we realized we had to plough through and get to the next music cue. By that time, the chaperones are realizing, 'Oh, we have to settle them down.' "
It's an occupational hazard but also a worthwhile trade-off for performing in front of a group overflowing with joy and energy. Hope particularly revels in the awe-filled responses during his battle scene with a 12-foot-tall shirt monster.
"When this thing rolls out, the kids are like, 'Waaah!' " he says.
Similarly, post-show talkbacks are uncharacteristically entertaining for both audience and actors.
"One girl in New York said, 'Are the monsters onstage really monsters?' " Hope recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah, to me they really are, because I really have to fight them,' and I guess there were a couple of parents whose jaws dropped and just went, 'Oh, no!' "
But for a show geared toward little ones, Shearer says older spectators have found a lot to love, especially those who know what it's like to deal with inconsolable, pre-verbal children.
"This is a big, goofy musical, but it also has this tremendous heart," Shearer says. "And for new parents, everyone has a version of this story."
And although much of the mid-show chatter tends toward wonderment and silliness, there have been more meaningful revelations. Shearer was performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and the audience included a group of autistic children. One boy responded to a sequence in which Trixie's father tries to get her to say his name.
"Apparently this autistic boy in the audience, maybe 8 years old, said it, and he'd never spoken before," Shearer says. "He said, 'Daddy.'"