The magic of theatre is spontaneity. Itâ€™s the unique phenomenon of creating something beautiful and ephemeral but still shared simultaneously with a group of people. Todayâ€™s audiences are in a constant bid for their attentions. The screen on a phone in so many peopleâ€™s pockets is constantly yearning to be looked at. Many companies are struggling with patrons whose phone etiquette is changing with the times. Parents and teachers are all lamenting, â€œHow do we get these kidsâ€™ faces out of the screens?â€ With their pioneering production of â€œHarold and the Purple Crayon,â€ Andrew Harris â€“ associate artistic director of StageOne Family Theatre as well as co-writer and co-director of this production â€“ poses this question instead: â€œWhat happens if we donâ€™t?â€
â€œHarold and the Purple Crayonâ€ is a 1955 childrenâ€™s book by Crockett Johnson. This is Johnsonâ€™s most popular book, and it has subsequently led to a series of other books and inspired many adaptations. There has even been a previous theatrical adaptation. â€œThere is actually one published script in which they pull from some of the books and build a narrative, but you lose some of the magic when Harold talks,â€ muses Harris. â€œIt loses that simple charm that the story had. Itâ€™s just a kid and his imagination, so we looked at what another way to tell the story was. What happens if we put their faces in the screen and connect them to whatâ€™s happening? Technology is their world. Letâ€™s use that and capitalize on that.â€
Harris and Artistic Director Peter Halloway are the creative team behind the productionâ€™s script and direction, but the script, such as it is, is really more of a loose structure or guideline. The events within the play involve a narrator (played by Alphaeus Green Jr.) as he relates the adventures of Harold (Matthew Brennan) as he goes for a stroll. Harold is armed only with his trusty and eponymous purple crayon, which he uses to draw his surroundings. He does this seemingly in real time on a blank digital projection behind him. Before things really get going, however, Harold draws to life his musician friend Ben, who is played by real-life, renowned musician Ben Sollee.
â€œWe decided early on that we wanted Harold to be a dancer, a movement specialist. So Peter actually wondered if Ben would be interested in doing something like this. We know he sometimes does live theatre. He did â€˜At the Vanishing Pointâ€™ at Actors. We just called him to see maybe if he would be willing to at least compose the music. He loved the idea of utilizing the new technology and engaging the kids with music, theatre and dance. We looked at our respective schedules and were able to work it out so that he could play it live for every performance,â€ says Harris. Solleeâ€™s music â€“ as well as the performances of the others on stage â€“ is characteristically superb. Thereâ€™s an air of improvisation to the music, and Harris reveals that one of the best numbers, â€œLetâ€™s Have a Pie Party,â€ was added only after a moment of inspired whimsy in rehearsal.
While these reasons should serve as more than enough to see this fine production, they hardly begin to cover what truly sets â€œHaroldâ€ apart. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor and partnerships with The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, Humana and the Nearpod app, StageOne was able to make â€œHaroldâ€ a singular, theatrical experience. â€œWhat do we want them to do? We want them to draw,â€ relates Harris. â€œIn a perfect world, we would have a budget of six-plus figures to develop an app that did everything we wanted it to do. Weâ€™re a non-profit theatre company. We donâ€™t have that. The app weâ€™re using is an app called Nearpod, which is an educational, presentational software.â€
Once Harris understood the parameters of the app, he was able to build the presentation that ended up becoming the production. With approximately 600 Nearpod-installed tablets linked over the Kentucky Centerâ€™s bolstered Wi-Fi, students are able to create drawings when prompted that, when submitted, are able to aid Harold in his quest. In one of the showâ€™s most impressive demonstrations of this feature, students are asked to draw a city building. When the deluge of images is compiled, Harold and the audience have a majestic view of a city skyline directly from the imaginations of children. Itâ€™s a beautiful thing.
In an effort to give each student a keepsake from their time with Harold, a streamlined process is in place that bundles each individual studentâ€™s drawings into a book that will be sent to their teacher as a PDF. That way, once printed off, the student can have a coloring book to continue the fun at home, or wherever.
â€œAbout 15,000 kids are going to get to come see it,â€ says Harris proudly. â€œAfter weâ€™re done with the tablets, theyâ€™re going to go on to some places where they can be used for education for kids who donâ€™t have access to this kind of technology. Itâ€™s part of our responsibility as a nonprofit. Those places have already been identified, but because of the anonymous gift, we canâ€™t say where they are going yet.â€
â€œHarold and the Purple Crayonâ€ is a fantastic feather in StageOneâ€™s cap and truly expands their educational mission beyond teaching in a classroom or merely putting something on stage. This innovative venture proves that they are invested in being a true partner in the Louisville community and keeping theatre for young audiences fresh, fun and relevant. VT