Not everyone can remember exactly what they did on their first day of school, but almost everyone can remember how it felt. At Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, a talented director and her cast and crew perfectly brought to life the ups, downs, and absolute messes inspired by a child’s very first day of kindergarten—in a show without the use of any word.
Potato People in School Daze is a playwritten by Theatre Beyond Words, a Canadian theatre company founded in part by the show’s director, Robin Patterson.
Patterson is known by many of Brock’s Dramatic Arts students as their professor for DART 2F04: Introduction to Physical Theatre, where she and fellow colleague, Trevor Copp, teach students important aspects of physical theatre, such as clown, mask, mime, and commedia techniques. Patterson and Copp also currently spend their Fridays teaching physical theatre to BFA Performance students at Niagara University. The two professors are highly skilled and awarded individuals in fields of dance, physical theatre and directing, bringing a strong and dynamic learning atmosphere for the students in their classes.
After sitting in on one of their third-year physical theatre classes, I learned from them that the physical aspect of theatre is more than just a category—the use of the body and face without vocalization strengthens the actor’s performance. Students are taught to move “sculpturally, not linear” thus creating a sense of depth for the audience.
“It’s counter-intuitive,” said Patterson, “[students] need to learn to go from talking to their partner onstage to talking out to the audience.”
The Potato People is a series of plays centred around the lives of Momma, Poppa, and little Nancy Potato. Niagara University Theatre’s production of Potato People in School Daze tells the story of Nancy Potato’s first day of kindergarten. Nancy is flooded with new sights, sounds, and friends, but can never seem to stray too far from Momma Potato – or is it the other way around? Although the play is about Nancy’s day at kindergarten, Momma finds herself unable to leave her daughter and winds up wrapped up in the chaos as well. Nancy befriends two children on her first day — Dillon Rye , a curious and intelligent boy, and Ida May’O Naise, an over-the-top attention grabber. The three children discover different ways to play together with the help of their exasperated teacher, who is always there to coach the children to clean up, or coax the children to calm down. Other charming characters include Poppa potato, the neighbourhood dog and the school janitor, Clarence.
The Potato People series is a type of show that uses no words — in its definition, it is a non-verbal mask work play using larval masks. These masks are made with neutral expression, which pushes the actor to use their bodies to physicalize the emotions of their character. Patterson described the concept as “live animation,” as the play becomes melded with visual art. With no dialogue to push the story along, Potato People transcends the boundaries of language and becomes internationally relevant — which has brought Theatre Beyond Words great successes around the globe for many years. In 1987, the Potato People received a Citation of Excellence Award in the Art of Puppetry from UNIMA-USA. Instead of words, Patterson has forged an entire emotional landscape for her characters using music that cues the audience to certain instances along with the finite movements of her characters.
This entire collection of Potato People shows are geared to audiences of all ages, keeping children laughing and having fun while learning about sharing, kindness and friendship. Parents are entertained with classic anecdotes of parental triumphs and headaches. What grabbed me the most about Potato People in School Daze was the charm and innocence of the characters and storyline. Teachers, daycare workers, camp counsellors, and anyone else who has worked with children in any way instantly recognize the reality of this show and are warmed by the precious moments that come with their line of work.
Although the Niagara University Theatre production of Potato People in School Daze has now closed, Patterson and Copp promise that it isn’t the last time they will make an appearance. Many of the students that have worked on this show, as well as other productions, have expressed the desire to keep the family going. Copp’s own theatre company, Tottering Biped Theatre, is in the works of bringing forth a physical realization of a graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman for the summer of 2018.
If you would like further information on Robin Patterson or the Potato People plays, please visit theatrebeyondwords.ca. For further information on Trevor Copp, visit totteringbiped.ca.
-Riley Cousins, Contributor