Preparation for a March 2020 Mercer Theatre production was in full swing when it was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With an almost entirely new cast and crew, “The Commedia Pinocchio” is now coming to life as the first show of the Mercer Players’ 2021-22 season.
The free, family-friendly play will be performed at 10 a.m. Sept. 24 and 25 and Nov. 13, the latter during Mercer homecoming weekend, at the northeast corner of Tattnall Square Park. In the event of rain, the show will move inside to Tattnall Square Center for the Arts.
Frani Rollins, Mercer assistant professor of theater, was inspired to put on this event after noticing a lack of free theater events for children in the Macon community.
The arts build confidence in kids and teach them problem-solving skills. Theater engages them in different stories and shows them unique perspectives, which teaches empathy and understanding, Rollins said. Being a community event, it also sparks conversation and discussion.
“Growing up with the arts, I think it enriched my life as an adult. Having access to the arts is incredibly invaluable to children’s growth in general,” Rollins said.
“The Commedia Pinocchio” is a one-act, 45-minute show that the whole family can enjoy together at no cost. It’s a chance for parents to get their children out of the house, and they don’t have to worry if their little ones can’t sit quietly the entire time, said Rollins, who can relate as the mother of a 3-year-old.
Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets and chairs to the show. Free snacks, bubbles, balloon animals and other fun “swag” will be available, Rollins said.
“The whole purpose was to give children in the community something to do to look forward to, which I think is very special,” said junior Derrick Buie, a biology and theater double-major and an actor in the show. “Kids got so excited about the ‘Phoenix Project’ show (in April), and I’m glad to be able to do something similar to that. There’s going to be something that everyone will laugh at.”
The play follows the classic story of Pinocchio, but it’s told by five student actors who portray dozens of characters, Rollins said. Buie, for instance, plays the character Puchin as well as Pinocchio’s father, Gepetto, and a few other side characters.
“The story of Pinocchio is delightful, and doing Pinocchio in the commedia style allows it to be much more light-hearted,” Rollins said. “It’s going to be a really good event for families to come out and be outside and enjoy some great theater.”
While it’s a scripted play, it also includes some improvisation as the actors interact with the audience. That improv allows the show to be more personal, as the actors break character, Buie said.
It’s a really interesting, high-energy show with slapstick humor, said Celinna Riordan, a theater major who is completing her senior capstone project through her work as the show’s stage manager.
“The actors are playing actors who are playing actors, which is a lot of fun,” Riordan said. “It’s an all-Black cast, which you don’t see much in theater. I think it will be really exciting for the community. I think it’s really good to show childhood characters in ways that children in the community can see themselves in, rather than just one typical portrayal.”
In addition to the actors, 10 students are involved in the production as the design crew and support team. Buie is the only student who was involved in the original production. The others have since graduated.
Buie said he was disappointed when the show was canceled last year and thought he would never get the chance to do it. He’s excited to see it finally come to fruition and hopes everyone has a good time and leaves smiling.
“There was so much excitement about bringing this show back,” Rollins said. “There was a short turnaround from casting to production. They’ve really been doing a fantastic job. Nobody likes what we’re going through right now, but this show and being able to present something that COVID took away from us … there’s something very healthy for our department to be able to make this production happen.”
Support for the event is provided by Mercer’s Research That Reaches Out Office, the QuadWorks student programming board, Macon-Bibb County Parks and Recreation and the Situation Room.