As audience members enter a performance of Gimme Please!, they meet a character wearing a colorful neck piece vaguely, though not explicitly, reminiscent of feathers. The character, who the audience will soon surmise is a fictional character called a “Gimme,” invites the audience to find a “nest” on the floor before the performance starts. Followed by teaching a series of actions including “jump on your gimme feet” and “rest in your nest” that audience members can reprise throughout the performance, this clear and welcoming invitation sets the tone of the performance so that audience members, big and small, understand that they can be as much a part of the story of the Gimmes as the actors.
“What explosion of possibility happens when performance-makers connect with one another across nations, cultures and communities, in a whole range of ways around performance-making for early childhood audiences?”— Dave Brown
Many TYA/USA members had the opportunity to experience this performance during the TYA/USA Festival at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in May 2019. The origins of Gimme Please!, however, began much earlier, as part of the PaperBoats platform, “an international partnership platform for performance-makers, pioneering new ways of connecting and creating.” Dave Brown, who founded and shepherds this unique platform, and also delivered the keynote at this year’s festival, further explains the thinking behind the PaperBoats model by asking, “What explosion of possibility happens when performance-makers connect with one another across nations, cultures and communities, in a whole range of ways around performance-making for early childhood audiences?” The first round of responses to this question continues to emerge through the inaugural iteration of the PaperBoats project, one that spans 2016-2020 and has creative sites in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United States. Artists in all of these places began with a similar generative idea. Brown selected “twos every which way” as the theme for the project’s first phase, exploring the ideas of pairs, opposites, and all other things that come in twos. Exchange of this thematic material between multiple sites is a key element of the intercontinental collaboration. Artists in the U.S. or Singapore might watch a video of a short devised segment or “module” created in Australia or New Zealand, and use it as a starting place to create an entirely new piece of work based on a prop, a movement, or a sound that originated on the other side of the world.
The PaperBoats model encourages the idea of “retrospective devising,” or a creative process that asks performers, designers, and theatre-makers of all types to create work around an initial idea or “provocation” and see what throughline emerges from rehearsal, rather than working toward a specific narrative. As Megan Alrutz, the director of Gimme Please!, noted, “the physicality grew first out of the props, then into the setting, then into characters, and finally into the actions. We weren’t starting with a story that we devised towards; we were devising to understand what the story would be.” This process encourages artists to devise, create, and explore performance elements like movement, music, found sound, props, and use of space first, then find the way these elements work together to tell a story later.
To guide this retrospective process, the PaperBoats model emphasizes seven principles of devising that artists use to guide their work in rehearsal as they create performative responses to a theme or guiding principle, called the “animating framework.” Other key ideas include “limiting the palette,” which invites artists to focus on the possibilities that emerge from simplicity; “whimsy and logic,” or relinquishing control to create freely then organizing and connecting creative pieces; and “slow brewing,” the idea that making work takes considerable time and shouldn’t be rushed.
"The physicality grew first out of the props, then into the setting, then into characters, and finally into the actions. We weren’t starting with a story that we devised towards; we were devising to understand what the story would be.”— Megan Alrutz
Gimme Please! emerged from this approach, beginning in a university course at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016. Using videos, or “modules” of work developed at Adelaide College of the Arts in South Australia, and similar physical inspirations (including rolls of receipt paper and paper party hats), Alrutz led a group of undergraduate and graduate students through an extended exploration of the PaperBoats principles, the idea of “twoness,” and the retrospective devising process. At the end of the semester-long class (which, as Alrutz noted, allowed time for the “slow brewing” principle and a longer-than-usual rehearsal process), the group shared a multi-module performance with audiences in Austin. Alrutz, working with co-deviser/assistant director Sam Provenzano, who was part of the original ensemble, as well as many other collaborators in Atlanta, eventually shaped these performance segments into the version of Gimme Please! presented at the Alliance. Festival attendees had a unique opportunity to see not only this piece but also Especially on Birthdays, the professional performance piece that emerged from initial explorations at Adelaide College of the Arts, whose work also informed the work at UT Austin.
Gimme Please! and Especially on Birthdays are very different pieces, although equally rich in aesthetic experiences and storytelling. While the narrative journeys seem almost unrelated (a new sibling discovering that big-sisterhood is not quite as she imagined in Gimme Please! and twins stepping into the unknown of their first separation as they enter school in Especially on Birthdays), audience members might notice certain similarities. Both plays involve two actors with a clear musical underscoring, an element of celebration and birthdays, and share significant moments of audience participation. Neither show relies primarily on language, although Especially on Birthdays, which was designed for ages 4-8, uses more linguistic elements to set up the story than Gimme Please!, which is, while flexible, geared toward ages 0-5 as part of The Alliance Theatre’s Theatre for the Very Young series.
In Especially on Birthdays, young audience volunteers are onstage for several minutes, joining a game with the actors and, in their presence, contributing to a conflict between the two main characters. In one moment, a young audience member is blindfolded and walks across the space to deliver a parcel to a performer. In Gimme Please!, young people, in a group, can “tightrope walk” across a receipt paper on the floor, hand out party hats to adult audience members, clean up wooden spheres that are spilled as part of the onstage action, and join a streamer-filled dance party. Additionally, individuals or pairs of volunteers join the actors to play a hot-and-cold game. Gimme Please! also includes many alternate plans based on the audience who enters each performance. As Alrutz explains: “Each module has 2-3 ways it could play out on stage operate, based on the audience, their age, how many adults are in the room, and their comfort with participation. The participatory interactive moments have alternative options. And this becomes complex in terms of what is the music is going to do, what are the actors are going to do, who’s going to decide and when are those decisions going to be made. Obviously theatre is different every time you see it, but this piece also includes the idea of ‘this module comes out, the revised alternative module goes in.’ ” In this particular instance, it is very clear the way the PaperBoats model (particularly the principle of “modularity”) influenced Gimme Please!.
The unique experience for conference attendees of seeing both pieces within hours of each other, alongside Brown’s keynote address, brought up a number of wonderings and hopes for ways the PaperBoats model might impact the TYA field in the future. Alrutz specifically mentioned the important capacity-building contribution universities can make by exposing emerging artists to innovative ways of creating and sharing work for young audiences and leveraging the longer rehearsal times they have available to develop work that eventually moves into professional spaces. The sharing of creative work and models like the PaperBoats that serve as a platform for collaboration between educational institutions, arts organizations, and indeed continents is an exciting prospect, as is imagining what Especially on Birthdays and Gimme Please! might inspire next.
This production was developed in partnership with the PaperBoats and was commissioned by the Alliance Theatre.
Director and Co-Deviser: Megan Alrutz
Assistant Director and Co-Deviser: Sam Provenzano
Associate to the Director: Maya Lawrence
Provocateurs: Dave Brown, Lina Chambers, Jim Weiner
Lighting, Scenic, and Props Design: Michelle Habeck
Associate Lighting Designer: Jiajing Qi
Costume Designer: April Andrews
Actors: Brittany Loffert and Andrea Washington
Composer: Okorie Johnson
Musician: Noah Johnson
University of Texas at Austin Gimme Please! devising ensemble: Jada Cadena, Lina Chambers, Mahalia Dinglasan, Moriah Flagler, John Grewell, Christine Gwillim, Jon Haas, Anushka Jasraj, Stephanie Kent, Jessica Rose Lowerre, Cortney McEniry, Samantha Provenzano, Becca Drew Ramsey, Veronica Rivera-Negron, Dakota Salazar, David Thomases, Ally Tufenkjian, Andrew Valdez
Provocateurs: Megan Alrutz, Dave Brown, Stephen Blackburn, Natasha Small
Dramaturg: Lauren Smith
Assistant Documentarian: Anushka Jasraj
Costume Design and Realization: Jessica Rose Lowerre
Media and Set Design and Realization: Jon Haas
Lighting Design, Realization, and Operation: Alex Hanna
Music Composed & Arranged by: Jada Cadena, Mahalia Dinglasan, David Thomases
Musicians: Jada Cadena, Mahalia Dinglasan, David Thomases
Especially on Birthdays
Director/Makers: Dave Brown, Roz Hervey
Performer/Makers: Katrina Lazaroff, Stephen Noonan
Designer/Provocateur: Geoff Cobham
Production Manager: Bob Weatherly
Music Score: Matthew Wilder
Production Management: Boat Rocker Entertainment/Jim Weiner
Especially on Birthdays has been collaboratively devised by:
(in alphabetical order) Gabriel Allani, Dave Brown, Geoff Cobham, Corey Cramp, Daniel Davey, Nicola Grant, Lucy Haas- Hennessy, Roz Hervey, Hasan Kourghi, Temeka Lawlor, Ian Loy, Katrina Lazaroff, Hui Xuan Seong, Stan and Soap comprising Serene Stan and Joseph Chian, Angus Leighton, Poppy Mee, Stephen Noonan, Bright Ong, Danae Underwood, Chloe Willis, Bob Weatherly, zephyrROM comprising the Zephyr Quartet: Belinda Gehlert, Emily Tulloch, Jason Thomas, Hilary Kleinig, and voiceROM: Dylan Marshall, Jarrad Payne, Jim Weiner, Matthew Wilder.