Lisa Mantchev has the patience of a saint, at least when working with 26 children, ages 6-14, all intent on being actors and/or singers.
At a recent rehearsal of Olympic Theatre Arts’ new musical, “Strictly No Elephants” — starring those 26 thespians — to the untrained eye it appeared to be chaos, but Mant-chev, director of the production, was unfazed and found order with some children practicing on stage, others asking questions and still others talking among themselves.
“I started in community theater when I was 7,” Mantchev said. “I was in ‘South Pacific’ when I was 7, I know what it’s like.”
Mantchev is not only the director of “Strictly No Elephants,” she is the author of the award-winning children’s book. Published by Simon &Schuster in 2015, the book was characterized by the New York Times as a “sunny, small, tongue-in-cheek tale.”
Now, Olympic Theatre Arts opens its 2017-2018 season Sept. 1, with the musical production of “Strictly No Elephants.”
The anti-bullying storyline revolves around a boy named Evan and his tiny pet elephant. Evan wants to join the neighborhood children on Pet Club day and then learns there will be cats, dogs and fish, but “strictly no elephants.” The Pet Club does not understand that pets come in all shapes and sizes, just like friends.
It’s interesting how three women were key in bringing this musical to OTA. Mantchev, who has been writing books for most of her life and is best known as the author of the young adult fantasy trilogy, “The Théatre Illuminata,” moved from California to the North Olympic Peninsula in 2003. (Her husband is a dentist with a clinic in Port Angeles, but likes open space, thus Joyce.) She studied theater and playwriting at the University of California–Irvine, and after graduation, taught English at a French-American school, and started a Drama After School Program at the school. With friends encouraging her to write novels, she began with young adult books, fantasy and her picture book, “Strictly No Elephants.”
“After I wrote it, everyone kept telling me it needed to have pictures,” Mantchev said. So pictures is has, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, a talented artist who divides her time between Seoul South Korea, and New York.
A few years later Linda Dowdell, a professional musician who has performed with legends of international theater, jazz, ballet and opera, left her comfort zone of Manhattan (New York), and she and her husband found themselves in Sequim. That’s a long way from performing with artists such as Yo Yo Ma and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Not surprisingly, both women were drawn to the arts community in the area and it didn’t take long for them to discover Olympic Theatre Arts. Mantchev is an instructor with OTA’s Children’s Theatre program and Dowdell directs the Summer Musical Theatre Intensive for Teens and on occasion performs with band Friends of Brubeck and other jazz musicians in the area.
Carol Willis, Olympic Theatre Arts executive director, was central to producing the play.
“When brainstorming with our instructors this past winter to develop the Children’s Theatre programming, we realized that is was generally difficult to find well written plays for children,” Willis stated. “We had done ‘Alice in Zombieland’ and ‘Captain Bree, Scourge of the Sea,’ but nothing was speaking to us.”
That’s when Mantchev suggested turning her book into a play “and from there it took off.”
During the writing process, the team thought it would be a good idea to introduce some songs into the story. Willis immediately thought of Dowdell, whose recent success with a new musical “Spirit of the Yule,” that she co-authored for Key City Public Theatre in Port Townsend made her a natural choice. Willis introduced the two and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Before we knew it we were working on a new musical not just a play with a couple of ditties for fun,” Willis enthused. “And it’s truly fantastic.”
The musical begins with young Evan, played by 12-year-old girl Zoe Cook, moving with his family into a new neighborhood. Movers, played by the children in the cast, carry boxes of all shapes and sizes onto the stage, while singing the opening number. Evan meets new friends in the neighborhood, all of whom have a variety of pets. How to put pets on the stage?
“For this challenge, the answer was puppets,” Willis said. The driving force behind the execution of the very creative puppets was volunteer parent Sue Montana.
“She jumped in at the very beginning explaining that she loved to do crafty projects and this would give her an outlet where she could really experiment,” Willis added.
The puppets are exceptional and, for those who attended the Irrigation Festival parade in Sequim this year, some of the children in the play brought these “pets” to promote the musical.
Now in the throes of rehearsals, the production is nearly ready for the audiences. Nearly every weekday, the young actors spill into the OTA Center, excited to practice their parts and learn the ins and outs of staging a musical such as “Strictly No Elephants.”
It is indeed must-see production and is the premiere of Children’s Theatre as a part of OTA’s live theater season.