PaintBox Theater offers more than performances

  • PaintBox recently peformed “The Great Race.” Contributed photo/PaintBox Theater

  • PaintBox will perform “Peter Pan” this weekend. Contributed photo/PaintBox Theater

For The Recorder
Published: 8/5/2016 10:31:36 PM

“Peter Pan” is one of those children’s theater classics that never seems to lose its luster.

One of my earliest memories is seeing a production of it, and feeling a moment of confusion as my grandmother walked on stage as Mother Darling.

Confusion whirled into something deeper — panic — as Captain Hook menaced the Darling children, and I shrieked my foremost concern throughout the theater, “Grandma!”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as my parents calmed me down, and then the play resumed.

That is not how PaintBox Theater would have handled such a thing.

“Other companies have stories they have to tell,” explains Troy Mercier, who plays Peter in this weekend’s performances, “but for us the stories aren’t as important as the audience.”

Outbursts from children are accommodated, not as distractions, but as opportunities to engage children’s reactions to what they’re seeing.

Stopping the action of the play to have a conversation with a 5-year old? For Mercier and his colleagues, it’s all part of the “playful chaos” of the theater.

The company’s founder, Tom McCabe, tells one story of a production of “Billy Goats Gruff.”

The Troll made a sudden entrance, and a child in the audience had a reaction similar to mine over Captain Hook.

McCabe, who played the troll, broke character to talk to the boy, asking if everything was ok and apologizing for scaring him.

“Our goal is not to terrify the children. So the next time I had to make my entrance, I called out from the wings, ‘Hey Bobby, I’m going to come out now, ok?’” Bobby had become part of the play, and his reactions altered the way the story was told.

McCabe, an actor and storyteller with 35 years of experience in the schools and children’s theater of the Pioneer Valley, founded PaintBox 13 years ago.

The company has been associated with New Century Theater at Smith College, and it maintains a presence at Williston-Northampton School, where “Peter Pan” will be playing August 5 through Aug. 7.

More recently, the Center School of Greenfield sponsored PaintBox productions of “Raggedy Ann” and “The Great Race” at Shea Theater in Turners Falls.

Theater is an important part of the education offered at the Center School, according to Head of School Isabel “Charlie” Spencer, who admits to having a long-standing affection for McCabe’s work.

The partnership between the Center School and PaintBox, says Spencer, offers “the exciting experience of live performance, as well as many opportunities of using theater to explore stories.”

She expresses enthusiasm for the commitment of the Shea’s new management to offering Franklin County families “high-quality children’s theater.”

Proponents of live theater believes that it has the capacity to move children in ways on-screen entertainments simply cannot.

“Parents get two shows,” according to Mercier. “They get to see our show and they get to see their children responding to us — their joy and involvement.”

Incorporating audiences into the drama on-stage demonstrates the commitment of PaintBox to what McCabe calls its, “inclusive focus.”

Children can also submit their drawings and paintings of the action of a given play, which are then projected on a screen above the stage.

The audience is invited to speak lines projected in yellow and follow suggestions such as “cheer!,” “gasp!” and “groan!” projected in red.

“Promoting literacy and reading is an important aim,” says McCabe.

There might be sing-alongs, such as in the upcoming “Peter Pan,” or in some cases, audience members might be asked to join the actors on stage in one of the roles.

In “Billy Goats Gruff,” for example, PaintBox never casts the second Billy Goat, which means a member of the audience always plays that part.

McCabe says he only needs three actors in any of his productions — “two to get along and one to disagree, and you’re off and running,” he claims.

Using fewer actors is part of McCabe’s resourceful plan to make children’s theater both viable and accessible. He wants to keep the cost of admission equal to a movie ticket without short-changing the talent in his company, offering actors compensation on a professional pay scale.

PaintBox Theater offers young actors, just out of college, more than a decent paycheck, however. It also gives them opportunities to develop the spontaneity and creativity of their craft, improvisation a significant component of any PaintBox production.

“This is why I keep returning to PaintBox,” affirms Mercier, who has been with the company on and off for 10 years. “I’ve seen plays where the actors are delivering their lines, but not really listening to each other. We have to listen to and support each other, as well as listen to the audience. Anything can happen, and that’s the magic of life.”

One of the best ad-libs McCabe can remember came at the end of a production of “The Great Race,” when the straps attaching Tortoise’s shell suddenly slipped off his shoulders. “Since I’ve won the race, I feel as though I’m coming out of my shell,” the actor handily supplied.

“When this is done right, it’s hard to tell where the writing ends and the actors’ improv starts,” says McCabe who adapts all the stories performed by the company.

In the adaptation of these works, McCabe and his actors pay attention to the matter of “what’s fair,” and have no qualms about altering the story to fit that imperative.

In the case of “Billy Goats Gruff,” they do not banish the troll at the end of the play. “We can’t do that in real life,” says McCabe. “We have to figure out how to get along with people we have problems with.”

The actors are not the only ones who get to be creative with these stories.

Kelsey Flynn, who played Hyacinth Hare in “The Great Race,” related how after seeing her performance, her 4-year-old son said to her, “Let’s play the tortoise and the hare, and you be the hare and I’ll be the cheetah.”

These plays are not just for the theater, but are intended to morph into actual creative play, providing a kinesthetic and personal interpretation of “story” in this age when children are spending more and more time in front of a variety of screens.

Theater has a way of, “getting the stories into children’s own bodies, of making stories more meaningful and personally relevant,” said Spencer.

Forthcoming PaintBox productions indicate a continuing commitment to a theater of personal and community relevance.

In November — election month — PaintBox will offer “Grace for President,” a play that walks children through the electoral process, at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst.

In December, watch for “The Santa Show,” an ongoing “domestic comedy” that changes from year to year.

More immediately, their third yearly summer offering, “Peter Pan,” will be on this weekend, starring Mercier as Peter and McCabe as Captain Hook. Their tag line for the show is “Everyone can fly!”

From what I’ve seen, PaintBox Theater has more than enough magic fairy dust to go around.

“Peter Pan,” adapted and directed by Tom McCabe, will be performed Friday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 6 and Sunday, Aug. 7 at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Williston Theatre, Williston Northampton School, 18 Payson Ave., Easthampton.

Tickets are available at the door or at

Tickets are $10. There is a group discount (15 people or more) of $7 per person.

For more information, or to make group reservations, call 413-923-7159 or email:

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