"THERE'S NOTHING to do." Every mother winces when she hears that refrain. Its frequency inevitably picks up near the end of summer, when all the glittery kids programs have gone with the fireflies. Sibling warfare escalates at our house, and I suspect everywhere. August was looking grim . . . until I had an inspiration.
When I was a kid the neighborhood pack put on plays in the communal basements of our garden apartments. This was always during the dregs of summer, and it kept us busy, excited and cool. "Katy, how would you like to put on a play with your friends?" I asked our8-year-old. She had me heading toward the library before I could have second thoughts.
On the shelves were three or four books of plays for kids to perform and others with ideas on how to write your own. Some were too old-fashioned and would have taken a good deal of rewriting to interest this video generation. I'm on vacation, too, so I kept looking until I found one that was ready to go and required no fees or permissions.
"The Tale of Oniroku" by Joanna Halpert Kraus fit our needs exactly. It was short but clever. There were lots of characters with only a few lines, some with a lot and one (the mountain) who had no lines, and only had to stand up and sit down at the proper time. The play was set in Japan, so costumes could easily be improvised from karate outfits and bathrobes. And the story line was similar to the familiar "Rumpelstiltskin."
Next came the hard part, lining up six other kids who weren't at camp or away for the week. I made the same offer to every mom: Send them over with a bag lunch for three hours Monday through Friday and keep Friday evening free to attend the performance. Since I was running an impromptu camp I gave myself dictator privileges and assigned parts ahead of time. No tryouts and no haggling over who would be what.
I decided the front porch of our bungalow would be our stage: Just enough space to move around in and not too large to transform into a credible Japanese village.
On the first day we read through the script and talked about what we thought the characters were like. The children were told to learn their lines at home, concentrating on the sense of the lines rather than trying to get them word-for-word. To reinforce that this play was actually going to happen, I distributed markers and paper for the kids to create invitations. Katy and a fellow actor gleefully roved the neighborhood inviting everyone within walking range.
We practiced our parts for an hour a day, first with scripts and for the last three days without, and then built scenery and fashioned props and costumes. The four ogre costumes we made from my husband's old T-shirts, a package of green cold-water dye, some feathers on sale at a craft shop, scraps of felt from my sewing baskets, leftover macrame cording and the kids' enthusiasm. The dyeing was an hour-long process, which also allowed for tree-climbing between stirrings.
The scenery was the favorite activity. I discovered there's a graffitist in each of us. Give kids cans of spray paint and you are ready for canonization in their eyes. We made a bridge out of cardboard and discarded lumber and a river out of a large cardboard box painted blue with day-glow fish swimming everywhere on its surface.
Dress rehearsal was Friday afternoon and we applied all the makeup for the final run-through. This of course delighted the girls and sent the boys back to their tree and wrestling matches.
My son and his buddies, who had snorted and guffawed at the idea of putting on a play, were now standing around ready to take over the painting or pound in a stubborn nail. They became full-fledged participants when I suggested a for-profit refreshment stand.
Friday came before we had a chance to get nervous. The older kids set up borrowed picnic benches and lawn chairs in the front yard and carted dozens of cupcakes, cookies, bowls of pretzels (the more salt you eat, they explained, the thirstier you get) and gallons of Kool-Aid to the refreshment stand. They also helped staple old sheets to the porch to hide the wings and jerry-rigged a stage curtain. Dad added some last-minute lighting.
As the stars put on their makeup with the help of several moms, I began to notice we had quite a crowd. The front yard was packed with neighbors that I hadn't seen since summer started. Parents of the kids were enjoying a reunion too. And the refreshment stand was doing a thriving business. As a matter of fact, our first curtain opening went unnoticed and we had to start the play over again once we got the adults calmed down.
The play went off without a hitch. Tika the carpenter outwitted the powerful river ogre Oniroku, the bridge was built, the villagers rejoiced and no one froze or forgot lines. The neighbors and parents applauded heartily and heaped praise on the actors. One parent brought a video camera and the kids watched themselves on instant replay and agreed with their parents that they were wonderful.
"You have to do this again," one parent said. "My kid hasn't talked about anything else since she started working on the play."
"What are you going to call your troupe?" a grandmotherly neighbor asked. "We haven't had plays around here since my kids were little. I know," she said, looking at my mail box, "Call it Playhouse 28!"
Cathy Nikkel Orme is a Washington writer presently recovering from her second annual neighborhood peoduction.