The last thing anyone would expect to find on a mid-week evening on a college campus would be energy—but when I opened the door to The Wall in Bucksbaum, I was immediately bombarded with the sight and sounds of the Neverland Players.
If dictionary words were replaced with sensory descriptions, the word “delight” and all of its variations would appear as Neverland’s wisecracking drumbeats, the bouncing-off-the-wall-actors posing as giant babies, sorcerers and Pretty Purple Unicorn interns, the foot-stomping piano melodies and the zany yet earnest refrains arising behind the star-decked curtains.
The Players did not let me sit and take notes for long, though— despite my weariness, I was quickly included in the equally quick warm-up games designed to exercise the actors’ improvisational reflexes.
At this point, the Players had already been practicing for an hour and a half, and were breaking up rehearsal with these short, high-energy charades. They quickly made me feel at home, or at least feel like a welcome visitor at the home of a large, rowdy family. And considering the amount of time the Players spend together, this familial vibe came as no surprise.
“These are some of the funniest people I know, and I get to hang out with them every day,” said Nora Coghlan ’17, who plays a bran-muffin-loving-sidekick-turned-hero (seriously, only kids can come up with this stuff).
“[We practice] for so many hours. Sunday through Wednesday, for 4-5 weeks. We have weekend hangouts that we call ‘mandatory fun,’ and weekly dinners, so we’re together a lot,” Coghlan added.
After the icebreaker, I was treated to a full skit, complete with choreography, costumes and instrumentalists Harley Boatsman ’19 (piano) and Jacob Friedman ’19 (drums). I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, practically about to fall off with laughter as the Pretty Purple Unicorns (the ever-so-effervescent Lukas Resch ’19 and Jonah Zimmerman ’18) pranced about the stage, or when the entire cast sang an ode to friendship and muffins to the tune of Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic.”
Unlike some groups that start out strong but end up fizzling as their founders matriculate, the Neverland Players have been transforming stories written by elementary school kids since 2004.
Every week, members of Neverland attend the Arts Council, located just across the street from Saints Rest. There, they meet with child authors to listen to their plot ideas. Their pieces are adapted into skits, some of which include several parodies of popular songs, with lyrics to fit the children’s stories.
“For the songs, we take little crucial pieces of the kids’ stories and relate it to a popular song [that everyone knows],” said Sarah McCarthy ’19, who stars as a badass princess that rescues both herself and her family from a social-media-crazed, lagoon-mermaid-queen-villain (played by the captivatingly villainous Lauren Fenton ’17).
“Whether it’s funny, relevant pop culture things or little tidbits from the story, we want to make sure that the show is fun for the little kids, college students and adults,” McCarthy said.
Emma Cibula ’17, who plays a sassy sorcerer, elaborated on Neverland’s group creative process. “After [we] read through the stories, we talk about what kind of format we want the skit to take on (linear, as a frame story, more abstract, etc.) and what characters. There’s no real formula in place . . . Sometimes, the characters we portray are just personified inanimate objects, so it’s kind of hard to look for precedent in how to get into character to play them. No one actually knows how a taco would talk or move, so that’s where individual interpretation comes in.”
Every semester, two new students take on the role of director. This upcoming show is directed by Jon Mehlhaus ’19 and Maddie Birchfield ’19, who have both been a part of Neverland for all four of their semesters at Grinnell. Birchfield lead the rehearsal I attended, and she lent a sense of calm, clear direction to the whirling plot twists and dances that happened on (and off) stage.
“My favorite part of Neverland is having the kids come up after the show and say that they loved their skit. This is all about showing our authors that their words are important and their ideas are worth sharing,” Birchfield explained.
Birchfield also emphasized the important connection that Neverland helps reinforce between the College and the greater Grinnell community.
“The spirit of Neverland is hard to capture, but I think it allows us to travel back to the days when we were the kids who believed anything was possible, and make sure that our authors believe that when they see their writing valued.”
The Neverland Players will perform this Friday at 7:00 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Wall Theatre in Bucksbaum.
— Editor’s Note: Nora Coghlan is the Arts Editor for The S&B.