Harry Potter novels involve certain tropes. There’s a mission, some unexpected setbacks, some tragedy, and ultimately triumph due to teamwork, ingenuity, and a bit of magic. All of these elements played a part in the current Wolf Pack Theatre Company staging of the loving Potter parody “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” running in Pay What You Can performances at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts black box in Georgetown through March 14.
Founded in 2014, Wolf Pack has mounted professional productions of musicals, recent dramas, and original works at several venues. It was not until last year that the company found a permanent home. Friends of the company worked throughout that summer to turn a meeting room in Brentwood into the Taylor Street Theatre, a fully functioning black box that hosted a usually-sold-out run of “The Rocky Horror Show” last Halloween season.
“Puffs” had been on Artistic Director Bill Leary’s wish list for some time, and he and his cast were just two weeks away from the late February opening of the show when the space the Pack had worked so hard to create was lost due to a bureaucratic matter.
“We woke up one morning to find out we no longer had a space to perform our show,” said Melanie Kurstin, who plays Megan, a jaded Goth student who is a sort of mirror (of Erised?) image of Hermione Granger. According to Kurstin, Leary offered the cast the option to leave the production without hard feelings, and with pay. No one took him up on it.
Instead, “we immediately rallied to look up local venues we could reserve for all, if not some, of our show dates,” Kurstin said. “We had worked so hard to put on this amazing heartfelt and entertaining show, and we did not want to see it go to waste.”
While the team searched for a new spot, an even worse blow came: Wolf Pack’s veteran technical director Stephen Beitzell died suddenly. He was a dear friend of many involved with the production, and though the loss had added deep personal sorrow to an already stressful situation, the Pack decided to press on in his honor.
Emma Cooley, who plays insecure student Hannah as well as multiple ensemble roles, said of Beitzell, “He was a big part of our production, not only from a sound and lighting perspective, but he was always kind and welcoming to everyone in the rehearsal room. He was always there with a smile and a joke to share.”
“‘Puffs’ was Stephen’s favorite show, and if anything, we were going to find a way to do it for him, even if it meant doing it flash-mob style somewhere in a public park,” said Kurstin. Cooley said his death left the cast “more determined than ever to make this show happen.”
A bit of good fortune, and the close-knit regional theatre world, helped “Puffs” find a home. Elenilson Ayala, who plays J. Finch Fletchley, had studied at the National Conservatory, and Nan Ficca and the faculty there kindly offered their space for an abridged run on the condition that seats be filled on a donation-only basis. The Pack packed up and brought the show across the line from Maryland into D.C.
Tech began in the new space on March 1 — several days after the originally scheduled opening date. The cast became the set designers as well. Kurstin ordered battery-powered candles to hang from the ceiling to allude to the Great Hall; Alexander Bruce Gordon, who plays Cedric Diggory (one of the only original major “Potter” characters with a significant “Puffs” role), crafted banners for each of the school’s four houses.
“I remember when I saw the show off-Broadway, one of the things I loved was the fact that there were all these notes and documents that were written by the characters,” said Kurstin. “They gave the space a personality and another look at the characters in the show and the school they attended.”
The cast got to work on such artifacts, which dot the walls along with parody posters of Broadway shows by Cooley, reimagined as performed by the school’s Frog Choir.
“Once Opening Night arrived, we were all a bit worried how it was going to go, because we only had one full dress rehearsal,” Cooley said. “However, at the end of the day, we were able to trust the work, adapt quickly, and just do it. Even amidst all of the chaos, the chemistry and heart of the show never went away.”
“It was devastating to have us lose our space, but maybe it was also a blessing in disguise,” Kurstin said. “We bonded in a way that was inspiring and have put together a show in just a week that we can be proud of. I hope audiences that realize that will come out to support us, and see the work we were able to do and deliver in the time we had.”
Tickets to “Puffs” can be reserved here, and donations to the company can be sent to Wolf Pack Theatre Company, 5324 Riverdale Road, Riverdale, Maryland 20737. Donations are not currently tax-deductible.