Stephenson Tales


On May 4th, 1970, at Kent State University, four students were fatally shot by the Ohio National Guard. Governor Rhodes had called them to Kent because he was nervous about the student reaction to President Nixon's "incursion" into Cambodia. Several hundred students were at a "peace rally" after sporadic violence the day before. Windows in downtown Kent had been broken. The ROTC building was torched. On this day the students were not only calling for peace, but were understandably resentful of the presence of military force on their campus. The Guard were exhausted, having been active in keeping order during several previous days earlier at a trucker's strike. Somebody, somewhere, fired a shot. The Guard, dodging thrown bottles and rocks, turned and were given an order to fire.

The next day KSU President Robert White called an emergency faculty meeting. He began the meeting with the incredibly insesitive statement, "This is going to hurt us." There was a gasp and startled "Ohs" from the faculty—we were all horrified that he could start with such a self-centered, insensitive remark.

But he was correct in his prognosis - classes were forgotten. My production of The Visit was cancelled on the eve of our first dress rehearsal. Although the spring quarter session of classes was not over, students left the campus by the hundreds—some never to return—ever. Some faculty just disappeared, many people in the town were ready to shoot on sight any student seen off campus. Enrollment dropped to zero and hundreds who had already applied for admission withdrew.

The summer quarter classes limped along with only about half of my students showing up. Something had to be done to heal the wounds. Lucy Chase had a brilliant idea—to create a group of theater students to take plays to elementary schools to demonstrate that KSU was not peopled by monsters.

At the first faculty meeting of the Theater Department in the fall quarter I suggested the idea. There was an enthusiastic approval immediately. Lucy Chase, ever far seeing, had worked it out—Tuesday and Thursday afternoons of the winter and spring quarters were to be kept open for rehearsals for any student who wanted to be members of the Play Package Company. The spring quarter was to be for performances.

Late in the fall quarter of 1970 I put up a notice on the theater bulletin board to share the proposal with the student body and to announce tryouts. We had just done The Oldest Established Academy for Fairy Godmothers in Creation in the Cellar Theater during the summer, so I used that script for the readings. Of course, to try out everyone had to agree about keeping the two afternoons open during the coming winter and spring quarters. We ended up with six girls and eleven boys.

Then the fertile mind of my writer wife went to work. She had an intriguing idea: all kids are interested in the idea of a haunted house — but what if there were a haunted house and the ghosts in it were scared of PEOPLE? And there was a treasure hidden somwehere in the house?

We agreed that that would be an interesting place to start. So she and I wrote out a scenario of what was to happen — and she outlined the details of the plot using the students whom we had selected to be members of the first Play Package Company. Using this outline as a scenario, I wrote the first draft of the script. We gathered Evie, Robin, and Toni together and read it aloud. Everybody made suggestions for changes. The suggestions were almost all instantly incorporated into the script. This brought us to the end of the fall quarter. During the break I wrote a second draft incorporating the alterations. When the winter quarter convened we met our cast for the first read-through and we made further refinements in what we had written in order to sharpen conflicts, clarify ideas, reveal and develop character — all to make it smooth and exciting.

Every week during the winter quarter we met from noon until about three on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, blocking, working on line interpretation, building climaxes—exactly the same kind of preparation as for an adult show. (By the way, Sanislavsky once said that theater for children was different from theater for adults: it had to be better!) Our resident designer for the Theater, Prof. Dan Hannon, built us a complete set for the living room, hall, and outside doorway which could be assembled in a matter of minutes. Our costumes were no problems as the play is a "realistic fantasy" which takes place in the present time. Also, during the winter quarter I sent snapshots of the cast members to be displayed in each school a week before our playing date.

When the spring quarter arrived we were ready. The pattern for each Tuesday and Thursday was the same: sign in at noon; one of the boys went to the transportation office and got a twelve-seater van; I took our baggage trailer behind our big Chevrolet van to the rear entrance of the theater; scenery and props were loaded and we usually left the KSU campus between 12:15 and 12:30—depending on how far we had to travel. On the way the cast had a final line rehearsal. Upon arrival at the school I immediately went to the principal's office to let him or her know that we had arrived, to check our playing space (it was never the same twice: a gymnasium, an all-purpose room that doubled as the cafeteria—sometimes with a shelf stage along one side—and sometimes even an auditorium!). (An interesting side light. Within two minutes we could tell what kind of a person the principal was. If he was amiable and well liked there was a relaxed atmosphere. If he was not we could instantly feel the tension (and sometimes even hostility!). At one school, for example, it was clearly the former. We could hear kids shouting, there was running in the halls (TSK!!!) as they came for performance. The principal stood by the gymnasium door and greeted EVERY child by name and when he introduced us and welcomed us to the school he began by saying, "Good afternoon, children!" and there was a roar from the entire school: "Good afternoon, Mr. Shafer!" We knew that we were among friends! Everybody was smiling!) My cast was shown where they could change into their costumes—usually the boys' and girls' locker rooms.

After the children and teachers had all gathered, and we had been welcomed, I gave a short speech to warm them up. I had them laugh, clap, laugh, scream with "fear" (because I told them that this was a ghost story!), and cry. In about 30 seconds they were ready—kindergarten kids in the front on the floor, then, behind them by grades all the other children, and teachers along the sides and at the back. The response was amazing. Many of these children had NEVER seen a live play before (in fact once a little boy shoutted to us as he left, "I liked your movie!"). The inevitable cheer when the hidden treasure was found was a response that still gives me chills—as I remember it after 37 years! Very heartwarming.

After the success of that intiial year, we knew we had a good thing. The Play Package Company played every school year for twelve years under my personal guidance and one more year under the supervision of a graduate student, Gary Connelly (who had been our piano player for the previous four years) from 1971 to 1984. Lucy Chase and I wrote all the scripts—in each case specifically for the company that we had that time around. We would invariably get a stack of letters from the children thanking us for coming and telling us what part of the play they had liked best. A most rewarding and treasured chapter in my memory book.

Composed 14-17 December, 2008, Transcribed by Robin

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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