Going Barefoot in the park

The Barefoot Players (from left to right) Emma Hunter, Rebecca Jess, Rachel Slaven and Phil Kalmanovitch take the stage.
The Barefoot Players (from left to right) Emma Hunter, Rebecca Jess, Rachel Slaven and Phil Kalmanovitch take the stage.

Theatre Preview: The Barefoot Players

This summer, Rachel Slaven will absorb a lot of abuse from her wicked stepfamily, while Emma Hunter will spend a lot of time being devoured by a big bad wolf. And, oddly enough, both are very excited about the prospect: Hunter enthusiastically called it “the best thing that could happen.”

The Queen’s drama students are delighted to be a part of this year’s company of Barefoot Players, a six-member troupe of student actors who spend the summer thrilling children in the great outdoors with their renditions of assorted fairy tales and legends.

Designed to offer the children of Kingston a chance to stretch their imaginative minds, the group is the annual summer product of a partnership between Theatre Kingston and the Queen’s Department of Drama. The cast of Queen’s students—which is rounded out by Rebecca Jess, Phil Kalmanovitch, Sasha Kovacs, and Rob Kempson—performs their repertoire of inventive tales for free at parks and events around Kingston all summer long.

“This is a rare opportunity, and a great learning experience,” said Slaven, the company’s only returning member from last summer.

The actors are given the chance to play a variety of roles in this year’s offering, which is entitled Tales Tall and Short. Queen’s Drama professor Craig Walker, the show’s writer and director, pieced together three stories from renowned fairy tale authors the Brothers Grimm—“Ashputtle,” “Hans, My Hedgehog,” and “Little Red Cap”—along with the tale of Theseus from Greek mythology and several musical interludes for an energetic performance that is sure to keep kids hooked.

“They get so into it, and we get energy from them,” Slaven said. Part of that energy is generated by the interactive songs scattered throughout the performance, where the audience is urged to dance and sing along. “It’s a mini break for the kids, so they don’t have to just listen,” Hunter said.

But the rest of the show’s appeal comes from the actors, who give the variety of performances their all. They cheerfully tackle the challenges of playing multiple characters in very different scenarios and of acting outdoors with a moveable set and props, and their energy never flags throughout the fast-paced show.

Behind the scenes, the troupe’s members are also asked to take responsibility for certain aspects of the company’s business side. Hunter and Kovacs, for example, are co-heads of publicity for the Players, while Kempson was in charge of building the set. Hunter said the opportunity to learn the business side of theatre was unexpected but something she relished.

“The acting is easy—it’s always been the one thing I can do and I’ve always loved it,” she said with a laugh. “But our designated jobs were unfamiliar to me. It’s great experience.”

Acting before an age group they’re often unaccustomed to facing was another challenge the players enjoyed. But performing for an audience of children is not very different from acting for adults, Slaven said.

“We just try to be high energy—kids appreciate it when you don’t ‘act down’ to them,” she said. The show doesn’t oversimplify the texts for its young viewers. Walker chose to leave intact the original violence in the source texts—like the mutilation of Ashputtle’s wicked stepsisters and the slaying of assorted mythological monsters by Theseus—giving the events a comic turn instead.

“Most of the violence is comic and fantastic, so there’s no immediate trauma,” Walker said. “[A lot of it] corresponds to fears kids already have, so it’s easier to deal with than [not talking about them].”

The actors’ schedule is demanding, as they will also run a two-week theatre workshop in early July and staging a mainstage show in mid-August. The mainstage show, which has been a Barefoot Players staple since 2002, will this year be Timmy’s Tree, a retelling of the works of Shel Silverstein written by Brian Frommer. It will run August 10 to 13 and 17 to 20 at the Vogt Studio in Carruthers Hall.

All this action will be undertaken while Slaven is being abused and Hunter eaten at parks and libraries across Kingston, but the company is happy to do it. “[The performances] go by so fast, and we all get along so well,” Hunter said.

Compared to her past waitressing jobs, landing this placement was “the best thing that could [have] happen[ed].”

Check out The Barefoot Players in action as they join in the City of Kingston’s Canada Day Celebration on Thursday, June 30. Please see http://www.theatrekingston.com/young.html for more information.

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