Jenny Ballard wasted no time heading for the playground when the recess bell rang.
Well, that’s if you can call the studio theater where she spent her summer a playground.
She starred in Swine Palace’s The Taming of the Shrew in June, and she worked backstage in the company’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in July.
And now she’s directing the Swine Palace-Playmakers of Baton Rouge collaboration of How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?
Yes, in the same theater.
“This is different,” Ballard said. “I’m back working with children, and I love it. So, I feel like school’s out, and I’m at recess.”
Ballard not only is directing this show but will be entering her third and final year in the LSU Department of Theatre’s master of fine arts program. She was operator of a children’s theater company in Knoxville, Tenn., before enrolling in the MFA program.
And she embraces any and every opportunity to work in children’s theater.
This is why she’s a familiar name with many of the actors in this production. She also directed last year’s Swine Palace-Playmakers collaboration on the musical Godspell.
That production marked the first such collaboration between the two companies, as well as Playmakers’ official move from the Manship Theatre to LSU’s theater facilities. Actors in Playmakers’ Young Professionals Program made up the cast, as they will in How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?.
The production is a musical, which opens Tuesday, July 31, in the studio theater in the LSU Music and Dramatic Arts Building. It was written by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler and marks the final production in Swine Palace’s inaugural three-play Summer Festival.
The story takes place in a school library during after-school detention, where the reluctant group is confronted with a substitute teacher named Mr. Sopperstein, who encourages them to spend their hour-sentence by using their imaginations and exploring Aesop’s Fables.
The story focuses on Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare; Androchles and the Lion, also known as The Shepherd and the Lion; and The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Of course, they’re resistant at first, but then they realize Aesop’s characters and stories mesh with their own points of view.
How’s that possible? Aesop was born in 620 B.C. He had no access to Facebook or Twitter, yet his stories have survived centuries.
And through these stories, it’s apparent that he knew the personalities and natures of each of the students sentenced to serve in this detention.
“Howie is the tortoise,” Finn Miller said. “He’s been told that he’s slow, and he does only what he has to do to get by.”
Miller is a 10-year-old student at Sacred Heart of Jesus School. He was joined by fellow cast members Madison Roy and Shelby Tassin during a rehearsal break on this particular afternoon.
Roy, also 10, is a student at St. Thomas More Catholic School. She plays the goody two-shoes character Riley in this show. Tassin, 15, is a student at St. Joseph’s Academy. She plays the popular fashion princess Savannah.
“And though the story doesn’t tell why Savannah has to go to detention, I think it’s because she skipped class to go shopping,” Tassin said.
“Excellent back story,” Ballard said.
But the real question here is why Riley is in detention? Riley, the girl who always gets good grades, does what her teachers tell her to do and never gets into trouble.
“Her friend was supposed to go to detention, but her name was accidentally written down instead,” Roy said. “So, instead of saying anything about it, she just goes because she’s told to.”
So, who does Riley relate to in Aesop’s Fables?
“Androcles,” Roy said.
“And Savannah is the lion,” Tassin said.
Now, these students aren’t the only actors in these roles.
“This play calls for a cast of seven, but Jenny has found a way to cast more than 20 in this show,” Jason Bayle said. “It’s amazing how Jenny is able to do this.”
Bayle is the production’s musical director, a position he also had in last year’s Godspell.
“The music in this production is fun,” he said. “And we’ll be accompanying the cast with a piano.”
This is just enough for the Studio Theatre, which is more than a theater.
It’s Ballard’s playground.
And she’s having a blast.
- CAST : Greg Leute, Mr. Sopperstein; Michael Gruden, Mr. Sopperstein; Josh Allred, Howie; Ross Childs, Howie; Finn Miller, Howie; Jessica Jain, Riley; Victoria Carbajal, Riley; Anthony McMurray, Jackson; Kamrin Kennedy, Jackson; Lily McGill, Daisy; Katrina Despain, Savannah; Sarah Patin, Savannah; Nick Hamel, Ari; Seth Disalvo, Ari; Playmakers Ensemble: Vivian Brown, Jolie Gautreau, Madison Roy, Anna Deshotels, Katy Nastasi, Christopher Fields, Paige Modicut, Landon Simpson, Finn Miller, Michael Howell, Shelby Tassin, Nickolas Day
- ARTISTIC STAFF: Jenny Ballard, director; Jason Bayle, musical director; Elizabeth Mathews, choreographer; Katrina Despain, additional choreography; Victoria Carbajal, additional choreography; Sofia Hurtado, stage manager; Shea Stephens, assistant stage manager; Sophie Mauffray-Howell, assistant stage manager; Todd Henry, Playmakers education director; Amanda Clark, Young Professionals Company director