by Tyler Jensen
MSUM theater students are taking their elementary school exclusive, “Anansi!,” and opening it up to the public for one day only.
The play will be on Nov. 21 with shows at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the Hansen Auditorium in the Roland Dille Center for the Arts. Tickets for the performance are free.
“Anansi!” is this year’s MSUM children’s theater production. This is part of a longstanding event where elementary schoolers are brought to the university to see in some cases, their first play.
Recently retired MSUM Professor David Wheeler was asked to come back to write and direct the play by Chair and Director of Theater Arts Craig Ellingson. Wheeler said work on “Anansi!” began eight months ago, but he’s been working on MSUM children’s theater shows for 27 years.
The play differs from his previous works because it is based on the folk tales of the Ashanti people of Africa.
“We have added African percussion instruments and played with African rhythms,” Wheeler said. “This play was an opportunity to combine African cultural elements with contemporary American theater craft.”
According to Wheeler, of the eight plays he has written for MSUM children’s theater, only “Anansi!” lacks fairy tale characters.
“Most have adapted traditional fairy tale plots,” he said. “Some of my plays, however, have varied a lot from traditional fairy tales. ‘The Big Bad Wolves’ was about a collaboration of wolves seeking vengeance on characters that included Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and Peter from “Peter and the Wolf,” Wheeler said.
Theater senior Nora Flaherty has been performing in the program since her freshman year. This time, she plays a “sweet but rather snobby” giraffe who, “enjoys topics of high intellect, and doesn’t care for tricks or anything frivolous. She prefers ‘when people are serious,’” Flaherty said, adding that the character is quick to remind the audience of the fact throughout the show.
For Flaherty, this year’s children’s show is bittersweet. She graduates in the spring so this will be her last time in the program. Flaherty said the program is her favorite type of theater to perform in — describing it as a wonderful experience.
She is friends with many of her fellow cast members and they get along with the crew, which she said makes the work fun and go smoothly.
The challenge when it comes to cast and crew belongs to Wheeler. Because the play happens during the day, and they have 15 performances, there has to be two casts and crews for him to direct.
“There are some delightful differences between the two casts, but on occasion, it gets confusing,” he said.
Flaherty loves the elementary school audiences, describing their energy as electric.
“It’s so easy to feed off of them and make the performance even better,” she said. “You can’t get a better compliment than kids giggling their heads off.”
Wheeler added one of the challenges with a child audience is that they “are very vocal and willing to interact with the actors, so the actors in return need to be able to respond appropriately, and with little warning.”
Showing his past as a teacher, Wheeler said his favorite part is both the audience and performers learning.
“Children’s theater at MSUM is frequently the first experience with live theatre that young children have,” he said. “It’s also one of the first opportunities for new theatre majors at MSUM to perform. Everyone is constantly learning.”