The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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December 14, 2012

Page to stage: Mermaid Theatre re-creates classic children's books

JOPLIN, Mo. — Saralee Lewis has a warning: She and her fellow members of Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia enforce a strict no-shushing policy.

In other words: Parents, keep your traps shut and let the kids talk through the show. Especially if they know the story.

"If they know the lines, they can say them," said Lewis, managing director of the theater. "We don't want them shushed."

Chances are that children will know the lines Sunday. The theater will perform their versions of "Guess How Much I Love You" and "I Love My Little Storybook" Sunday at Thomas Jefferson Concert Hall.

"Guess How Much" is a familiar children's story about two rabbits -- a mother and her child -- talking about how much they are loved. Written by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram, puppeteers brought the illustrations to life with articulated, 3-D, large puppets designed in Jeram's style.

Such dedication to illustration is a guiding mission of the troupe, Lewis said. While other companies make large, yet sometimes necessary, alterations to the artistic style of a stage adaptation, Lewis said they try to re-create the book as faithfully as possible. Puppeteers use large, human-sized puppets in the show.

"We try to do a translation of the page to the stage," Lewis said. "We often choose books that are not brand new, so we have delighted parents and grandparents, as well as children. And they all want to see the story the way it is in the book."

The theater has a repertoire of some beloved children's classics, including "Goodnight Moon," by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, and a compilation of stories by Eric Carle, including his brown bear and very hungry caterpillar.

Part of the reason for the theater's attention to detail: They know kids will call them out. During one of the first performances of "Goodnight Moon," they found out quickly about a seemingly innocent detail.

"There's a part where an old lady puts a bowl of mush on a table," Lewis said. "A kid told us that it was placed on the wrong side."

The puppets are all handcrafted and silk painted by a well-known folk artist in the Nova Scotia area, Lewis said. The puppets are also build by artistic director Jim Morrow, who also writes the adaptations, produces sets and more.

Lewis said Morrow storyboards every adaptation similar to a movie.

"That serves as a blueprint with who is on stage and which prop they should use," Lewis said. "Then he goes and makes the stuff with staff members."

The theater also has original music composed specifically for each show, and recorded narration by Beau Bridges. The goal is two-fold, Lewis said: They want to introduce children to the performing arts, and enhance their appreciation of reading.

"Many in our audiences have never been to the theater before," Lewis said. "We try to do those two things together."

Sunday's performance will be the second time the group has performed in Joplin -- it presented a benefit performance with backing from the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Ark.

Want to go?

Mermaid Theater of Nova Scotia will present "Guess How Much I Love You" and "I Love My Little Storybook" at 2 p.m. Sunday at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School's concert hall. Tickets: $15, $13 for parents of TJ students, $11 for students, $10 for TJ students. Details: 417-781-5124.

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