“Puss In Boots” Redux for Waterworks Players this weekend
Published 1:34 am Tuesday, December 5, 2023
For almost a generation, The Waterworks Players’ holiday panto has been a beloved tradition in the Farmville community. “Puss In Boots,” which opened Friday, Dec.1, is literally something old, something new; a different version of “Puss” was the very first panto that Waterworks staged 17 years ago.
What’s been the key to the panto’s growing popularity? I hoped a talk with the directors of the “old” and “new” versions of “Puss In Boots” might help answer that question.
Over coffee, I met with Waterworks founder and Artistic Director Dudley Sauve, who directed “Puss” in 2006. How did all this start, I asked.
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“Well, I came to know Mary Jo Stockton,” Sauve said, “and I was intrigued by her creativity. I asked if she’d like to be on the Waterworks’ board of directors and she said yes. A year or two later, she came up with the idea of doing a pantomime, a genre of theater I was unfamiliar with.
“I thought it sounded ridiculous. But as she began describing how the actors directly engaged with the audience, it sounded like fun. So I said, ‘Let’s try it one time and see what happens.’ The next time we met she gave me shortbread and wished me a merry Christmas.”
But why “Puss In Boots” as the choice for that first panto?
“Well, we were looking at adaptations of fairy tales, children’s theater stuff,” Sauve said. “Frankly, I didn’t know what in the hell I was doing. The main problem I had was that the younger actors were learning pantomime, but not basic things like ‘stage right’ and ‘stage left,’ for instance. But Mary Jo gave me suggestions, and the panto became for me an introduction to a new kind of theater.”
What stood out the most about that production?
Sauve smiled, shaking his head. “It’s been so long ago. Most of the details are fuzzy. The main thing I remember is how Jordan Whiley got the audience involved so quickly. He was dressed as a lady and had a great sense of timing, and the audience—unprompted—started making comments like ‘Oh, yeah?’ and ‘Watch out!’ A regular audience might have reacted with facial expressions or even small gasps, but nothing like the way that audience responded to Jordan,” Sauve said. “He was a big part of the show’s success. Mary Jo and I talked afterwards about how much fun it was.”
My meeting with Mary Jo was shorter—a squeezed-in 15 minutes prior to rehearsal—but she provided a wealth of information about the panto’s history at Waterworks.
“I became a board member during the 2003-04 season,” she said. “Dudley was a customer of Moonstar, the internet service provider started by my spouse Elle and me. After attending a show in the late 90s, I volunteered to help with photography and managing the website for Waterworks. That’s where Dudley first connected with me. After we’d discussed doing a panto as part of the Waterworks season, I showed a DVD of “Puss In Boots” to the rest of the board. Everyone agreed we should do it. “Puss In Boots” was an add-on to the regular season. At the time, Waterworks did not have a show in December, so a panto was added. The holiday season is the traditional time of the year for pantos to be performed in Britain where panto originated.”
What was the biggest takeaway of that first panto for her?
“The first thing I noticed was, ‘We won’t need any plants’ ,” Stockton grinned. “And Dudley’s right—Jordan really got things rolling. He was the Dame, a lovable character who appears onstage early and engages the audience.”
What’s different about “Puss In Boots” this time around?
Almost a generation of people have been coming to the pantos now, and understand what they are: marvelously inclusive, entertaining theater. We’ve sold more than one-half of the tickets already. The pantos have gone bigger over the years—more outlandish, colorful costumes, more overacting. This is true for the scripts, too. There are six different versions of “Puss,” and the one we’re using this year is more broadly comic than before. And this year I had more people audition than I could use—a nice problem to have, though I felt badly about having to turn folks away.”
When asked what she thought about the pantos’ long run in Farmville, Stockton didn’t hesitate. “This ‘Puss In Boots’ is our seventeenth panto! Dudley directed the first six, and I began directing in 2012 with ‘Rumplestiltskin.’ The only year we missed was in 2020 during COVID, but Waterworks did do an online version of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ It’s gratifying to be part of something that’s imaginative, that’s fun, and that brings so much of our community together.”
When is Puss In Boots being performed?
“Puss In Boots” concludes its run this weekend with three more performances. The first is Friday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. The second is Saturday, Dec. 9 with a 2 p.m. matinee and a final performance at 6 p.m. For ticket information, go to the Waterworks website, waterworksplayers.org.
Editor’s note: Dr. Craig Challender wrote this for the Farmville Herald.