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Penobscot Theatre's latest virtual production is an all-local streaming series for kids

Bangor Daily News - 1/8/2021

Jan. 8—People may be wondering who's taking care of the Bangor Opera House while it's shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Have the ghosts taken over? Are there bears hibernating under the stage? Or, heaven forbid, have they left it in the hands of the actors?

It turns out that the Opera House Gang is still caring for the stage, the lights, the costumes and those newish seats installed about three years ago.

That is one of several surprises revealed in the Penobscot Theatre Company's latest offering from its fully digital, pandemic-era season that started in the fall.

"Mr. Ben's Playhouse," which begins streaming Saturday morning, is a completely locally produced show that draws its inspiration from "Mr. Rogers," the Muppets and Pee-Wee Herman. The show, which stars the theater company's director of education, Ben Layman, is made up of five, 15-minute episodes. A new one will be available each Saturday through Feb. 6.

"This is the first online show this season that we've produced from soup to nuts," Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport said.

Once it became clear that the coronavirus would keep live audiences out of the Opera House, Newport and her staff scrambled to design a season of virtual productions.

The idea for "Mr. Ben's Playhouse" was sparked when the theater had to shut down its Dramatic Academy last March due to the pandemic. About 300 children and teens in the Bangor area participate in the program each year.

"I wanted to stay connected to our theater kids," Layman said. "I began by reading books online over Facebook but I was looking for a creative way to teach theater concepts and engage their imaginations."

Layman turned to the husband and wife team of Brad LaBree and Kat Johnson, both of whom have worked previously with Penobscot Theatre Company. They and Layman turned to their childhood encounters with Mr. Rogers, Pee-Wee Herman and the Muppets for inspiration.

Because his students call him "Mr. Ben," Layman came up with the idea for the playhouse theme. LaBree wrote and directed each episode and Johnson designed and built the puppets. All three, along with special guests familiar to regular theatergoers, act in the show.

"Each episode has a theme with tidbits of education in the performing arts and how to apply those skills in everyday life," LaBree said.

Those themes are imagination, listening, being heard, health and physical fitness, and empathy. Those are some of the basics of acting that Layman wanted his students to remember while they are away from the theater.

"Half of each episode takes place in the playhouse and the other half takes place in the theater with the Opera House Gang so people will see that it's still being watched over," LaBree said. "We wanted to create something that kids and their parents could enjoy and give them a little theater education in bite-sized nuggets."

Each episode will be released on a Saturday morning, but previous episodes also will be available to ticket holders so families don't have to worry about missing any of the shows, Newport said.

"I want kids to watch this on a Saturday morning eating a bowl of cereal, the way I watched cartoons," LaBree said.


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