Last year, Aaron Posner’s play “Stupid F—ing Bird” was a huge success for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. If that title were to come up in his current production, though, he’d have to say “Stupid Fudging Bird.” Or just spell the word, the way parents do for things like “S-H-O-T” and “I-C-E C-R-E-A-M.”
Posner, a central figure in the D.C. theater scene, is directing “The Gift of Nothing,” a world-premiere musical commissioned by the Kennedy Center for its Family Theater. Based on Patrick McDonnell’s book of the same name, which features characters from his “Mutts” comic strip, the show follows Mooch (Nickolas Vaughan), a cat who needs to buy a holiday present for his doggie best friend Earl (Maggie Donnelly). Of course, Earl, being a dog, has everything he needs, so Mooch decides to get him nothing — but every nothing he finds is actually a something. The message is “very sweet, very anti-consumption,” Posner says, though the show’s first order of business is to entertain.
“Children’s theater is remarkably like adult theater, but harder,” Posner says. “You can’t trust that interesting talking will hold the attention of your audience. Your audience is … very honest and not very polite. You really want to not bore them.”
Posner compares directing “The Gift of Nothing” (which he adapted for the stage with McDonnell and Erin Weaver) to, of all things, directing Shakespeare.
“What Shakespeare wanted was an active, engaged, present audience. He was trying to create theater that was vital and alive and happening,” Posner says. “The worst thing is when students come to a play and the teachers all lecture the students, ‘You behave. You be quiet.’ We want them to engage respectfully, but you want them to respond and laugh and boo if they want to. If it’s a great audience it makes a great show.”
Posner, who thanks to his 3-year-old daughter is an “expert audience member now” when it comes to children’s theater, says he had to find a way to hold the attention of the iPad generation without going over the top. “We’re not trying to be desperate,” he says.
“We’re trying to be good. In everything you’re doing, you’re just trying to make sure you’re telling the story the best way it can be told. I have not done anything in recent memory I’ve been more excited about or more proud of.”
Nickolas Vaughan was determined to play Mooch the cat without looking like he was in “Cats.” “I wanted to play a cat, but not imitate a cat,” he says. His prep for the role included watching YouTube videos of cats, playing with friends’ cats and working with a choreographer. “We found a different language for how I move onstage, trying to add that cat quality,” he says. “It’s very ninja-like, very sleek.” He also had to embrace Mooch’s distinctly feline personality. “He’s basically like every other cat,” he says. “He’s kind of standoffish, but he loves you.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Sat. through Dec. 28, $20. (Patrick McDonnell will sign programs and books in the Family Theater lobby after the 1:30 p.m. shows Sat. and Sun.)
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