Sundays tend to be slow days for theatre news, if you get most of your theatre news online. By the time I sit down to trawl through “the Sunday papers” for theatre stories to share, primarily through my Twitter account, I’ve seen most of what’s on offer already. The New York Times Arts stories start filtering out through Twitter and Facebook as early as Wednesday, the Sunday column of Chris Jones at The Chicago Tribune is usually available by Friday afternoon, and so on.
I look at my theatre news curation on Sundays as perfunctory (just as Saturdays tend to be particularly busy), knowing I’m unlikely to find much, which is why a story in the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star managed to catch my eye. It’s not, so far as I can tell, in the paper’s arts or entertainment section, but in local news, the sort of charming slice of life that columnists look for to illuminate their communities. However reporter Conor Dunn found out about impresario Dylan Lawrence’s production of Shrek: The Musical in a neighbor’s backyard, I’m awfully glad it came to the paper’s attention, and that I stumbled upon it. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a taste:
Now 13, Dylan pulled off his first major production this weekend — “Shrek: The Musical” — at The Backyard Theatre in southeast Lincoln, a venue literally carved out of a family’s backyard and completely run by kids.
This isn’t the first time Dylan has directed a play, however. It’s just in a new location. Last summer, he and 10 of his friends performed “The Wizard of Oz” in his Lincoln backyard. Dylan said the cast put the show together in just nine days and about 70 people attended.
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While most theatrical productions have a set and a stage crew, Dylan took most of the roles on himself, alongside directing and performing as Lord Farquaad in the show.
He’s sewn the costumes, designed the props, rented a sound system and also created light cues using a software program on his laptop. He even created The Backyard Theatre’s website.
I have no doubt that there are other Dylan Lawrences out there, so I like to look at this story not as a wholly unique incident, but rather as emblematic of the grassroots love of theatre that inspires kids, and that in turn can inspire even those of us working at it professionally. I’m glad it’s finding resonance online – my post has been “liked” on Facebook 72 times in less than two hours and shared 37 times, including by David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics. I suspect the number will climb much higher, because I believe that many more people will connect to it in the same way that I did.
There was one comment posted to me on Twitter, where I also shared the Journal Star story, saying “Hope he has the rights.” While I am adamant that authors should be compensated for their work, I wonder whether this ad hoc production by children 14 and under, with no institutional backing or adult leadership, reaches the level at which a license is required, and I intend to find out. However, if it turns out that a license should be paid, I don’t want my decision to share a local story that might have otherwise gone unnoticed to be visited upon Dylan and his company; consequently, I’ll pay for any rights required myself, to help Dylan practice what I preach, because it’s a small price to pay for encouraging the love of theatre and for a tale that reminds so many of us why we got into this crazy and thrilling business in the first place.
I performed on stage for the very first time as Charlie Brown at my day camp’s condensation of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown into about 20 minutes. I’m willing to bet it was unauthorized and unlicensed, and I don’t say that to encourage scofflaws, but merely as a fact. While it sounds like The Backyard Players of Lincoln, Nebraska are considerably more sophisticated than the rudimentary theatrics at Camp Jolly circa 1969, I feel a kinship to Dylan, even though he is obviously significantly more enterprising than I was. So I urge you to read his story and, perhaps, remember that very first time you made a stage in your backyard or your basement, or sang a show tune in elementary school before you’d even seen a play. Because we all started somewhere, and we need to always celebrate those taking their first theatrical steps whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Update, July 27, 7 a.m.: 18 hours after I first shared the Journal Star story via Facebook, my posting has been liked 107 times and shared 81 times. I have no way of knowing how it spread beyond there, but the original story on the Journal Star website has been “Facebook recommended” over 2700 times. We are that kid.