Actors are likely to balk if a script doesn’t offer them enough lines.
Alex Vernon, however, is happy his current part doesn’t have any.
Vernon plays the title character in “Wake up, Brown Bear,” as how for children 1-5 presented by Imagination Stage.
“That’s one thing that makes this show special,” Vernon said. “I love having non-verbal characters in a show because it asks more from the audience to interpret what a character is thinking or feeling.”
“Wake up, Brown Bear” a designated play for young audiences, takes the bears and young viewers through the seasons: they meet a curious butterfly, play in a rushing waterfall and catch lightning bugs in the forest.
How does an actor know the audience is getting it?
“This show is so participatory and interactive,” he explained. “The good thing is at this age group, if you try to get them to fold a blanket a certain way, they get it. Or tell them a bolt of fabric coming out of a tree is water. Most of their lives they’ve communicated nonverbally.”
Janet Stanford, founding artistic director of Imagination Stage, and Kathryn Chase Bryer, associate artistic director, wrote the play 10 years ago. The theater has presented it several times.
“We knew the story had to be simple, with not a lot of language,” Chase Bryer said. “We read a lot of children’s picture books; they really understand the economy of language.”
The co-authors recently “reimagined” the play for its 10th anniversary, including the musical component, she added.
The openness of young children to imagination makes it easy to write and perform for them. On the other hand, they might not be able to sit still.
So, the early-childhood shows last only 40 minutes, with no intermission. Even more important is their interactive nature and flexibility. The children sit in a circle on the floor
“If a child runs out of the middle of the circle, we have built-in ways to deal with that,” Chase Bryer explained. “We make it clear to parents that it’s OK to let the kid run around a little bit. We want to be accommodating. We rarely have a case when they don’t come back in.”
There’s also intimacy: these productions take place in Imagination Stage’s black box theater, rather than the much-larger, traditional Lerner Family Theatre. The black box seats 50 children and 50 parents.
“We rotate our early-childhood plays,” said Chase Bryer, who is directing “Wake up, Brown Bar. “We have four slots every year for these productions.”
Another aspect of “Wake up, Brown Bear” treated minimally – aside from the verbal – is that the lead actors wear only furry ears and brown knit wrist warmers over obviously human hands.
“It helps a lot for the kids, because wearing a lot of fur might be scary for them, especially in a small venue,” Vernon said. “If someone tells them they’re a bear, they get on board and don’t call you out.”
Older kids, he admitted, are more likely to do just that. In addition to the fact that these productions are often the first live theatrical experiences these young audience members have, they also promote values.
“‘Wake up, Brown Bear,’” for example, teaches empathy,” Chase Bryer said. “In the play, Brother and Sister Bear become empathetic to each other.”
Vernon and Sarah Olmsted Thomas, who is playing Sister Bear, bring built-in empathy to their roles. The husband-wife duo consider themselves lucky that most of their performing is done together. Otherwise, Vernon laughed, between rehearsals and productions, they’d rarely see each other.
Imagination Stage presents “Wake up, Brown Bear” Jan. 11- Feb. 13. The theater is at 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda.