The Enter Stage Right theatre company is going to show you how to get, how to get to Butternut Grove in a brand new original musical satire, Welcome to Butternut Grove.
Written by Greg F. Nugent and directed by Jen Nugent, Welcome to Butternut Grove is a loving yet twisted ode to the forgotten low-budget kids’ shows of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
We’re not talking about shows like The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup. Those were high concept compared to Butternut Grove.
We’re talking about some of the more obscure ones such as Cucumber, Read-a-long, Polka-Dot-Door and Harrigan the Leprechaun. Shows that captured the imagination of a captive audience of tots with only 22 channels to choose from, but wouldn’t survive today in our world of specialty channels, high tech, and cynicism.
Welcome to Butternut Grove is the third production from Enter Stage Right, a not-for-profit theatre company created by brother and sister duo Greg and Jen Nugent in 2014. Taking a page from their own experience as kids, they sought to create a place where teenagers between the ages of 14 to 18 could have a positive and hands-on theatre experience.
“My brother and I were both huge theatre kids and were involved from a very young age, be it in school plays or community theatre,” says Jen. “The arts were a big opportunity for us to get to know ourselves and we really come into our own. I don’t think either one of us would be the people we are today without the opportunity to test our creativity and stand on that stage in the spotlight. We want to give our students that same experience.”
While some of Peterborough’s high schools still have thriving arts programs, others have suffered due to budget and staff cuts. Working as a teacher in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, Jen recognized that there was an entire community of students that weren’t getting the same positive theatrical experience she and Greg had.
“I’ve been teaching for nine years,” Jen explains, “and I would find that I’d get into a school and spend a lot of time helping to develop a theatre initiative and get shows going, only to find out at the end of the year that I was traded to another school. I’d find out that the theatre programs that I started just didn’t have the staff to keep them going.”
Jen and Greg started Enter Stage Right as a way to unite students from all the schools across Peterborough that are serious about creating high-quality theatre.
“Because I’m a teacher I know a lot of students,” Jen says. “I have a fairly strong base at Kenner, but I also have connections at TASS and I contacted the teachers there. We’re slowly expanding. This was the first year where we had at least two students from all four of the public high schools. We’re still trying to break into some of the other schools and, slow and steady, we will.”
A company of 16 students and six crew members help bring the colourful world of Butternut Grove to life in this very funny show that appealed to my pop culture sensibilities.
Set somewhere between Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood sits Butternut Grove — a land where characters like Miss Pennyfeather (Eva Conrad), Mr. Sunnydale (Zac Houghton), and The Two Step Twins (Abby Craine and Emily Chute) have been teaching kids lessons ranging from mathematics to personal hygiene through rhyme and song for decades.
Aware they are in a television show, but unaware of what lies beyond the grove, recent years have not been kind to Butternut Grove.
With ratings declining, the producers are trying to keep Butternut Grove relevant to a increasingly modern audience by adding new characters and pushing lessons into the background.
Fearing the worst, Miss Pennyfeather takes matters into her own hands when she magically kidnaps feuding teenage sisters Courtney (Aliva Buchan) and Kelsey (Lindsay Rudkins) to … well, I’m not sure if anybody knows exactly what the exact plan is, but it’s not the friendliest. Soon the sisters meet the new narcissistic host Mr. Wonderful (Andy Curtis), who they both fall in love with and go their separate ways in hopes of romance.
But time is running out as the show’s former science expert Professor Pollywog (Taylor Gauthier) and her henchman The Man in Red (Colton Beal) seek to destroy Butternut Grove. Soon a search party for the girls is formed by a crew of “misfit” characters who were retired from the show as failures: Plain Jane (Ashton Kelly), DJ HipToTheMax (Chase Mitchell), The Flumpesaurs (Antje Kroes) and — possibly the most scene-stealing member of the cast — The Bear (Ben Greene).
Can a group of loser characters save the girls? Will Butternut Grove be cancelled? Will Professor Pollywog succeed in her diabolical plan? No matter what, you can be sure there’s another musical number to be sung before it’s all over.
Finding inspiration from the TV Ontario shows of the ’70s and ’80s for the creation of Butternut Grove, Greg F. Nugent has created a very funny and colourful world of offbeat characters. Every student involved in the show has his or her own unique character to play, and although not all of them have big parts, characters such as Gluten Free Gladys (Emma McIlveen) and the Horrible Hippie (Grace Bulman) have their own personalities.
The fact that each person involved in Welcome to Butternut Grove plays an important part in the production is what makes Enter Stage Right a unique theatre program. Jen and Greg’s goal is to have the students involved in the show, so they come away with hands-on experience in everything from the production to stage design, costume design, and marketing.
“My brother and I write the shows and I’m the director, but after that it is a fairly student-centered project,” Jen explains.
“Our company focuses on the process of collaboration and providing ownership. We spend the first half of our rehearsal process getting actors into their character and knowing their roles. We don’t get into the second act until later, because the script may change. The kids might come up with new concepts or new quirks for the characters. We really focus on allowing the kids to bring their own creative control to the project.”
The best two elements of Welcome to Butternut Grove are the clever and funny script and the positivity and sense of fun of the students involved in the show. You can feel the sense of comradery they share in creating this show.
Even when the production broke down a few times during the rehearsal, the students responded with laughter and positivity. Even an outsider like me could see that this was a winning experience for the students and that friendships had been formed through the process.
Over the past few months, I have seen an exodus of talented young actors from Peterborough as they start their careers in bigger cities. As I watched the new faces in this show, I found myself hoping that these will be the next crop of young performers who will fill the gaps the many departing actors have left behind.
I hope to see the cast from Welcome to Butternut Grove on the stage again and again. I really like these kids.
Meanwhile, Greg F. Nugent’s script is very clever and filled with edgy humour. Although it often comes across as a family-friendly show, some of the humour is cutting but in all the best ways. Watching the bear maul a character as if he was Leonardo DiCaprio was an unexpected joy, and a revelation at the end involving actress Jaquie MacDonald seemed so off-colour that even I might have thought it offensive — if I weren’t laughing so hard.
Welcome to Butternut Grove is so clever that, with a slight rewrite with even more edgy humour, it could easily be Fringe Festival material.
Jen and Greg are doing really great work by giving high school students who may not have access to arts programming the chance to express their creativity and spend some time on stage in the spotlight.
“Our mandate is to reach out to all secondary students in Peterborough and get anyone in the arts involved,” Jen explains. “You can be an actor, a dancer, a singer, a tech kid, or you can have never done any of that and we’re here to teach you and coach you and you feel like you’re part of the entire project.”
Welcome to Butternut Grove is your chance to see a crop of young actors who may be the next frontrunners in the Peterborough theatre community. The show runs at 7 p.m. from Wednesday, April 27th to Saturday, April 30th in the PCVS Auditorium. Tickets are $15 or $10 for students and seniors and are available at the door.
All photos by Sam Tweedle / kawarthaNOW except where noted