The Greenbelt Arts Center will be presenting “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Susan Nanus, based on the book by Norton Jester, at the GAC beginning November 29, 2019, and running until December 15, 2019. “The Phantom Tollbooth” is produced by Winn Britt with Ronda Ansted as assistant producer. The play is being directed by Jon Gardner assisted by Millie Tansill.
“The Phantom Tollbooth” brings the beloved children’s fantasy adventure to life as Milo and his faithful watchdog Tock travel to the Lands Beyond. According to Gardner, the plot is as follows:
“Ten-year-old Milo is bored one afternoon when a Phantom Tollbooth mysteriously arrives in his room with the instructions, “Have your destination in mind.” Traveling in his toy car, Milo arrives in Dictionopolis to discover that King Azaz the Unabridged is at war with The Mathemagician of Digitopolis over whether words or numbers are more important. Milo, joined by Tock and The Humbug, resolves to rescue Princess Sweet Rhyme and Princess Pure Reason from the Castle-in-the-Air to restore peace to the land. But the Castle-in-the-Air is guarded by ferocious demons….”
There are 22 actors in this play including 4 children, 8 teens and 10 adults. The play is wonderful for children, and adults will enjoy the puns and the adventure.
I had a chance to interview the Director, Jon Gardner about himself and the production.
Bio: Jon Gardner (Director) continues to alternate between directing for Goddard’s Music and Drama Club (MAD) and bringing fun, family-friendly plays to the Greenbelt Arts Center. He previously directed “Wizard of Oz” (2017), “Seussical” (2016) and “Winnie-the-Pooh” (2015) for GAC, and “Leave It to Psmith” (2019), “Wyrd Sisters” (2016) and “Our Town” (2014) for MAD. His favorite role on stage is Lumiere in MAD’s “Beauty and the Beast,” and he also appeared on stage in “Showboat,” “The Sound of Music” and “Annie” with MAD, and “Kiss Me, Kate” with 2nd Star Productions.
Questions for Jon Gardner.
- Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I live in Greenbelt. I grew up in Indiana, went to college in Boston, graduate school in Hawaii, worked for 4 years in England and then moved to Maryland in 1996. I am an Astronomer with NASA. I first got involved in local theater through NASA’s Music and Drama Club (MAD Theater) when my daughter got a part in their 2008 production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” In 2009 the club did “Annie,” my daughter played Kate. and I auditioned and was cast as the policeman: Lt. Ward. I was in the next few musicals with MAD and started directing with “Our Town” in February 2014.
The second time I directed, I wanted to bring a family-friendly show to the Greenbelt Arts Center. So, I did a musical version of “Winnie-the-Pooh” in 2015 in the December holiday season. I have continued to direct for both MAD and GAC, with Terry Pratchett’s “Wyrd Sisters” (2016, MAD), “Seussical” (2016, GAC), “The Wizard of Oz” (2017, GAC), P. G. Wodehouse’s “Leave It to Psmith” (2019, MAD) and now “The Phantom Tollbooth.”
- Why did you choose “The Phantom Tollbooth” to direct?
I was not familiar with the book as a child. I first read it only about two years ago. I love the wordplay and puns. The very best of children’s literature, like “Winnie-the-Pooh” and Dr. Seuss, is not only fun for the kids but also appeals to adults so that the parents can enjoy reading it too. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has that quality, with an absurdist sense of humor that is reminiscent of Roald Dahl. Of course, it is also exciting and funny and clean and not scary. Therefore, it will be a great show for a whole, multi-generational family to see during the holiday season. We’re opening the day after Thanksgiving, so when the turkey is in leftovers, you are all shopped out at the sales, and you still have family visiting from out-of-town, going to a show provides a fun thing that everyone can do together.
- What are the problems in dealing with such a large cast?
There are some challenges. Putting together an efficient rehearsal schedule around the conflicts of 22 people is a very complicated process. Rehearsing the scenes when everyone is on stage takes a lot longer than the scenes with fewer people. Blocking is also a challenge in a small, intimate theater. We are using 4 entrances, and to bring a crowd on or off stage quickly we have to use all 4 entrances at once. With 22 people playing 42 different roles, the costumer, Susan Neff, has a very big job to do; she has five people in the costume crew helping with the sewing. In fact, despite the big cast, on this show we have more people working off-stage than we have in the cast, to put together all the costumes, props, set pieces, set painting and the tech. We’re planning a back-stage team of 7 in the running crew to keep the play moving quickly, and the “backstage choreography” is important to avoid traffic jams or collisions.
- How is it different or the same to direct young children and adults?
I really enjoy working with a multi-generation cast. When I directed “Our Town,” the cast ranged from age 9 to age 89, as is appropriate in depicting a small town. One thing I like is that the children and the adults are all there for a reason. Most activities with both adults and children are either aimed primarily at adults (but they let the kids participate), or they are aimed at the kids (but the adults join in.) Theater is different – each person has their role to play and if the script calls for both children and adults, then you have to do it that way. So, everyone buys into the idea of working with people of all ages, and everyone is fully supportive of everyone else. The cast becomes a community and we all work together.
For this play, the cast includes 4 children, 8 teenagers and 10 adults. Harper Chadwick, who plays the lead role of Milo, is 10 years old and this is the third time I have directed her. Previously she played Roo in “Winnie-the-Pooh” at age 6, and The Young Kangaroo in “Seussical” at age 7. It is great to work with her again; she has a huge amount of talent and will do a fantastic job of carrying the show. I was especially pleased to be able to cast the teens. All but two of the teens were in plays that I directed before, in each case, starting when they were pre-teens. For example, Sophie Cooper, now 14 years old and playing The Spelling Bee, previously played Piglet in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” Thing 2 in “Seussical” and the Munchkin Mayor in “Wizard of Oz.” Lydia and Jason Kalshoven, who were 10 and 11 in “Our Town,” are now 16 and 17 and playing The Whether Man/Gatekeeper and The Undersecretary of Understanding, respectively. Another teen, 17-year-old Findley Holland is playing Tock the Watchdog. Her first play in the area was as the Demon in “Wyrd Sisters.”
There are also several adults in the cast that I have directed before as well: Dave Buckingham is playing King Azaz the Unabridged; he was in “Our Town” and “Leave It to Psmith,” and was my producer for “Wyrd Sisters.” Then. there are newcomers. I have known Aref Dajani (playing The Humbug) for years, as he was in a play with my daughter in 2012, but this is the first time I have directed him. Wes Dennis, playing The Mathemagician, and Daniel Dausman, playing The Dodecahedron, are both actors I didn’t know before auditions. Although, I had seen them perform in other plays. So, the cast is a mix of old friends and new friends.
One thing I try to emphasize is for everyone to have fun. The cast and production staff work hard, particularly in getting the timing of the action to work well, but the result of all the hard work is that the show is a lot of fun. When the cast is having fun, they bring the audience along.
- Greenbelt’s Arts Center is a flexible theatre. How will you be producing this show (proscenium stage, in the round, in half-round) and how did that decision affect your directing?
Based on the selected shows this year, the GAC Programs committee decided to do the whole year in 3/4 thrust configuration, with the audience on three sides and only the back of the stage as a wall. I like this configuration a lot; it gives the show a very immediate and personal connection to the audience. There are triple the number of “front-row” seats, and the audience is brought into the midst of the action without the distance of a “fourth wall.” The way the space works at GAC, thrust configuration also allows for more seats and a better view; that is an important consideration since we might well sell out some of the performances.
“The Phantom Tollbooth” is the story of a journey; Milo, Tock and The Humbug travel in Milo’s toy car to Dictionopolis, Digitopolis and then through the Land of Ignorance towards The Castle-in-the-Air. As they pass through each place, they meet interesting characters along the way. Staging a journey play requires a lot of set changes, and if those aren’t done quickly then the play will drag. The thrust configuration allows the three friends to drive the car downstage while the set crew changes the scene upstage. But mostly we’ll have a simple set with the audience using their imagination to fill in the details. There will be some surprises, though!
“The Phantom Tollbooth” will play from November 29 through December 15, 2019. Friday night times are 8 PM and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM (matinee). The Greenbelt Arts Center is located at 123 Centerway, Greenbelt MD 20770. Their phone number is 301-441-8770. For tickets and information please go to their website.