It was his first day of rehearsal as a professional actor and Ted Brackett was already in trouble.
Artistic director Judith Martin pulled him aside from the rest of the Paper Bag Players—a Manhattan-based company that writes and performs original musical theater for children age 3 to 8—looked him in the eyes and put it to him bluntly.
“Ted, we really like you, but you’re just not funny.”
“Oh my God,” he sputtered. “I consider myself a comedic actor.”
His rebuttal drew neither a laugh nor sympathy from the notoriously demanding director and Mr. Brackett never thought he would hear from her again, he said. But a week later, his phone rang and an unexpected voice was on the other end.
“We’d like to give you another shot,” Ms. Martin said. “Can you come down and work with us?”
That was 26 years ago. He hasn’t looked back since.
In 2009, Mr. Brackett took the helm as artistic director and, this season, is steering the troupe into unchartered waters. To celebrate the Players’ 55th anniversary, its newest production, “Hiccup Help!,” revisits song, dance and theater from the company’s origins—coupled with new material—that will stage on Saturday, November 23, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
The format of the hour-long performance is much like “Saturday Night Live,” Mr. Brackett explained during a telephone interview last week after rehearsal. The scenes—acted by four actors and resident composer John Stone, which range from three to 10 minutes each—ebb and flow naturally without a central plot line, he said.
There is no fourth wall—the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage between the stage and the audience. There are no asides, subtle wordplay or jokey double entendres for the adults in the audience, as the entire show is told directly to play to the kids. The children—sometimes up to 1,000 at any given show, Mr. Brackett said, of which there are nearly 120 per season—are in on the good, clean fun in a very real way. Each child is another Player, he said.
“I don’t think, ‘We’re doing this for kids, let’s do it this way.’ We don’t play down to kids at all,” Mr. Brackett said. “Kids’ minds are very sharp. We treat them as one of us. And when the kids walk into the theater, they immediately feel at home.”
That’s because the entire set is made of cardboard and paper, he said. And scenic artist Jon Peck doesn’t try to hide it.
“We really have come a long way in making things out of cardboard—stools, books, you name it,” Mr. Brackett laughed. “Last year, I made a guitar. You can make anything out of cardboard. It’s so easily adaptable. If you make a mistake, no big deal. You go get another piece cardboard.”
The same ideology applies to costuming. In order for the actors to breathe, see and project, any face-covering outfits are fit with muslin. And the larger pieces—such as a 15-foot-tall-by-20-foot-long paper dinosaur—are reinforced with wood, Mr. Brackett said.
“I think it’s very reaffirming. We’re up there having fun. It’s okay to have fun. And the kids can take that in,” he said. “You don’t have to be playing video games, watching TV. It’s okay to have fun playing with simple things. I think that’s a big part of what we do and present to the children. Most likely, this is the first theatrical experience of these children’s lives. It’s a powerful place to be.”
Many years before he could have ever dreamt of being a musician, Mr. Stone remembers his fascination with the Paper Bag Players—particularly composer Donald Ashwander and his electric harpsichord, he recalled last week during a telephone interview. He gave the troupe its musical personality.
“I grew up with the Paper Bag Players myself, being a New York City kid,” Mr. Stone said. “I would see him and his instrument on stage. He was one of the first to apply ragtime to harpsichord. It had a very distinct quality and sound—whimsical and charming. He was very gifted. I had never seen anything like it.”
And 10 years into his tenure with the company, Mr. Stone cannot count the number of times audience members have approached him with the same exact memories as his.
“I have the feeling of being in the middle of a huge, wonderful tradition. And being part of it as both an audience member and contributing now,” he said. “Of course it’s not the same exact company, by any stretch, as in the early years, when Judy Martin was still alive.”
She was born on August 13, 1918, the daughter of Russian immigrants, in Newark, New Jersey. She commuted to Manhattan for drama and dance, later studying with Martha Graham—where she met new friends Shirley Kaplin, Sudie Bond and Remy Charlip.
Inside a city apartment in 1958, they came up with an idea: a fresh, improvisational theater group. They never imagined it would become a Manhattan institution, the first troupe of its kind to win a special Obie citation for Off Broadway excellence, as it did in 1965.
Over the course of 51 years, she acted in more than 35 shows seen by 5 million people.
“Originally, they didn’t think that children’s theater was what they wanted to do,” Mr. Brackett said. “Back then, it was fairy tales, big costumes and they really wanted to do something that had more to do with children’s everyday lives, directed to the kids. So, they started working with paper and cardboard.”
After Mr. Brackett’s horrendous first impression nearly three decades ago, Ms. Martin quickly took him under her wing, he said. She mentored him for many years and eventually named him assistant director.
Then, one day in 2009, Ms. Martin couldn’t make it into the studio. Suddenly, it was up to Mr. Brackett, he said. On July 28, 2012, she died of kidney failure.
“She had a real strong vision. It’s one of the reasons this company lasted for all these years. It was her way,” Mr. Brackett said. “That vision is still alive in the older work and I’m starting to see my own vision more and more. It’s never been boring. And I’ve never gotten tired of it. Even after all these years.”
The Paper Bag Players will perform “Hiccup Help!” on Saturday, November 23, at 2 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Tickets are $16 and $13 for children, or $14 and $11 for members, respectively. For more information, call 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.