The Phantom Tollbooth
THE ZOOT THEATRE COMPANY
TOWN HALL THEATRE COMPANY
Theatre at its very essence is collaboration: designers and directors; directors, production team, and actors; artistic and front of house staff; and numerous other people all work together to create art. However, we don’t have to limit collaboration to simply what can be done within a single theatre. Rather, collaborating between theatre groups, working together to put on a show or teach classes or read plays, can greatly expand both audiences and participants.
This weekend, the Zoot Theatre Company and Town Hall Theatre are doing just that in their production of The Phantom Tollbooth. In the story based on Norton Juster’s 1961 classic, young Milo is bored with everything from his toy collection to his life, so extremely that the Demons of Ignorance eagerly wait for him to succumb and urge him not to do anything at all (for that would be dangerous). However, with the arrival of an anonymous package and his entry into the fantastical Phantom Tollbooth, he discovers a new world and embarks on a remarkable journey to save the Kingdom of Wisdom. A funny and entertaining show for all ages, The Phantom Tollbooth is filled with puns and plot elements, such as Milo’s sudden Jump to (the Island of) Conclusions, that are the consequences of interpreting idioms literally.
Because of the combination of familial and fantastical elements, this show perfectly showcases the expertise of both the Dayton-based Zoot Theatre Company, which focuses on puppet work, and Centerville’s Town Hall Theatre, a professional and quality-driven children’s theatre. ZTC and THT have collaborated equally on a production annually for the past four years; they usually share artistic responsibilities, and selected this show together. This piece is different in that due to the nature and schedule of this piece, ZTC directed and artistically formed The Phantom Tollbooth, while THT handled all the front of house, publicity, and related areas. However, several students and Town Hall regular actors play the childrens’ roles, including the lead of Milo, making this production a successful model of collaboration between two groups, and providing both patron bases with opportunities beyond what either theatre could do alone.
Working together benefits both theatres. Mark Metzger, Artistic Director at Town Hall Theatre, remarked,
“I look for opportunities for our young people to be challenged, and to operate a puppet and receive feedback from professional puppeteers is an opportunity they won’t get anywhere else.”
Working on a production where the puppets take center stage, and other production elements (set, lighting, costumes) support the puppetry, is a great learning experience for student participants and audience members. This is especially beneficial given the prevalence of shows on Broadway – such as The Lion King, Avenue Q, Shrek, and WarHorse – that incorporate similar techniques.
Even if puppet-based shows were not experiencing such popularity, though, because plays are meant to be seen, not just heard, the addition of such a predominant visual element teaches skills applicable to all theatre, and collaborations such as this benefit both organizations. Metzger commented on Zoot’s talent and ability to produce quality theatre, so he had no reservations whatsoever about doing a project where THT’s own artistic involvement was minimized, knowing that the show would be excellent for both theatres.
As a traveling-based rather than single-venue theatre, Zoot finds collaboration extremely important. Working with Town Hall allows them the chance to perform in another space and with a different patron base; they also do a lot of work within schools and help area theaters with puppet-based work when needed, and even within specific shows, place a high emphasis on collaboration. For example, in describing the process through which the theatre designs and creates puppets, Zoot’s Artistic Director Tristan Cupp explained that various artistic staff design, sometimes originating with group discussions and sometimes with a focal designer’s vision, all the while working with the director to make puppets that align with the characters’ and show’s needs. These different processes, and Zoot’s production skills, are very collaborative. Cupp said,
“What’s wonderful is each one of these artists has strengths in different mediums and different styles, which really lends to the variety of puppets and looks and different ideas… You can expand your creative horizons that way, by learning from each other and learning to use different materials and different styles; that’s what’s needed, and it’s really appealing to a lot of artists who want to help us out and be a part of it.”
Part of that collaboration involves the input of visual artists not involved in theatre, which adds diversity and a variety of skills to the art.
Fittingly, then, Zoot has just announced a residency with the Victoria Theatre Association, and their Mathile Theatre at the Schuster Center. In the previous couple of years, Zoot has presented two shows independently at the Mathile, but this residency will provide both groups an opportunity for growth and collaboration. Zoot’s productions fit into two categories, Mainstage and Zoot Tales (child or family oriented), and the residency will introduce more people within those areas to a type of theatre relatively new to Dayton. Now, Zoot will choose a season of three shows to present, and the VTA will provide venue and/or assistance with touring; the Victoria will be able to offer educational initiatives in puppetry through ZTC, which fits nicely with programs such as their Physicians for Kids Discovery Series.
“Puppetry itself is storytelling through a universal language.”
As such a collaborative organization, Zoot is looking ahead to continuing their work with schools and various theatres, and both Town Hall Theatre and the Zoot Theatre Company hope to continue their collaborations together. Cupp noted, “Puppetry itself is storytelling through a universal language,” and the idea of working together on something so universally applicable is beautiful. Collaboration, too, is universal, for we all have a certain connection as imaginative human beings capable of working together because of that humanity. Reflecting this, The Phantom Tollbooth provides an experience and combination unlike anything else in Dayton right now, where audience members truly can experience imagination come to life.
TICKETS AND PERFORMANCE INFORMATION
Dates: April 15 – 17, 2011, at Town Hall Theatre; April 21 – 30, 2011, at the Schuster Center’s Mathile Theatre