Setting Up House In 'Busytown'

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Actors dash backstage to jump into their pickle cars, banana cars, seagoing vessels and various critter-inspired costumes. And that doesn't include the universe of props they carry in "Busytown," at Imagination Stage through Nov. 2.

Adapted by Kevin Kling from "What Do People Do All Day?," one of author-illustrator Richard Scarry's "Busytown" picture books, the show is geared to children as young as 2, unusual for the Bethesda family theater.

Scenic designer Tom Donahue wanted the show to remind kids of Scarry's books without duplicating them slavishly, especially in the case of the large scenery pieces. He took Scarry's bright colors and tamped them down to "more of a tint" so the actors and props would stand out. "We wanted to create our own design for it, our own world . . . our own little universe," he says.

Coordinating entrances and exits for the big cars (which actors step into and "wear") and the itty-bitty planes, trains and automobiles (a broom-o-cycle, a rabbit in a carrot car, mice in a crayon car) that run on a circular track, Donahue says, required "as much choreography backstage as there was onstage" during technical rehearsals. Store-bought model cars and planes were out of keeping with the Busytown look, so "we said, okay, let's build cars that would fit this world," he says. The team designed vessels and vehicles of all sizes from scratch, which Donahue says was both fun and "freeing the imagination."

Properties designer Andrea "Dre" Moore created most of the non-vehicular pieces and chose to make objects from the book come to life. "I felt the kids would really understand if they said, 'Oh, that's the cake that was in the book,' " she says. For cakes and cupcakes, Moore used an expanding insulation foam called Great Stuff from the hardware store. Icing was made with tub-and-tile caulk. The proof was in the way actors and stagehands reacted to the finished product, she says:

"You know you're doing well when somebody walks by and [says], 'Ummmmm, cupcakes!' "

The most recognizable being Moore designed for "Busytown" may be the Everycreature, Lowly Worm. Fashioned as a kind of puppet that the other characters hand off to one another throughout the play, Lowly's body is made from a vinyl dryer vent hose, with a big shoe at its base.

But it sounds as though Moore took the most delight in creating a piece that gets only a few seconds onstage -- a little flour mill, used when Farmer Alfalfa tells the young grocery store cat Huckle how he grows the wheat that becomes the flour that the bakery turns into cakes. Moore acknowledges that the audience may not take in all its features in those few seconds, "but I come from a fine-art background. . . . I like to push any detail I can into it and just cross my fingers."

Tiny stuffed mice operate the mill and its grindstones, and "in the bottom corner," Moore points out, "there's a little supervisor mouse . . . with a little clipboard and a little pen."

A Playwright's Activist Role

Director-playwright-actress Seret Scott had long wanted to write about her experiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when she took a break from college to act with a theatrical offshoot of the civil rights movement. The Free Southern Theater promoted voter registration in Louisiana and Mississippi with agitprop street-theater performances.

The conditions Scott, who grew up in Washington, found in the rural South tore the scales from her eyes. "For me, it was an absolute life-changing experience, in understanding what poverty was and what privilege was," she says.

Her fictionalized play, "Second Line," about a young woman who helps register voters during that era in the South, is at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through Oct. 26, presented by Tribute Productions. Scott says she decided to blend her own experiences with those of her mother, Della, who spent 14 months in Vietnam as a social worker.

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