By Peter Michael Marino
About three years ago, I was recommended to audition for a workshop of a new kids’ show called Pip’s Island. I was provided sides for three characters, two of which were in my acting wheelhouse and one, the menacing villain, seemed like… well, a reach. But, I said “yes.”
I began my audition with the most obvious fit for me and my style of performance – a jolly, likeable Park Ranger. Piece of cake. Then onto the next one… a nerdy badger-inventor. Okaaaaay. I hoped they would stop there, but they asked me to continue and read for the villainous Joules Volter. I was terrified, and decided in that very moment to throw away any stock character ideas I had chosen in my pre-audition preparation and make him a clown. An idiot. And funny.
I scurried around the audition room, in and out into the hallway, hopping up over the accompanist to the top of the piano (sorry Simple Studios), and delivered my evil words with a blend of madness, helplessness, and ridiculousness. My final threatening lines were delivered from underneath the long coffee cup-littered table of the director, writer, and producers. They offered me the role of Joules Volter on the spot. I might have still been under the table. I recall saying, “Really?!” And my journey on this enchanting island began.
The workshop lasted about two weeks in a church rec room on the Upper West Side. We used our imaginations to work with a treasure trove of found objects, fabric scraps, ladders, dollar store trinkets and cardboard boxes. The sound effects came from Bluetooth speakers in each “environment.” The lighting was daylight streaming through whatever windows there were in our semi-subterranean toy box. As a team, we dreamed up creative ways to bring this immersive story to life using what we had. A ladder became a lighthouse. A box became a boat. A bed sheet and a flashlight became a shadow play for a fight sequence. The creators created an atmosphere where everyone’s ideas were important and everyone was heard. Together through improvisation, clown, and team-building exercises, we made the story clearer, added more details and back stories to the characters and filled out the plot. Then we had a few invited performances - but unlike a typical workshop, the audience members were 3-10 year olds. Not sitting in seats but walking through a maze of ingeniously-themed areas separated by simple rolling walls. And they bought it!
The kids and their guardians gleefully took the journey – interacting with us, cheering for the heroes and booing my villainous character along the way. We had something but I don’t think any of us know exactly what that something was. Was it a play? A theme park attraction? A Sleep No More for kids? What we did know, was that it was really fun. We all felt like kids again.
About a year later, we had a lengthier workshop downtown at 3-Legged Dog where cardboard boxes and flashlights were replaced with imaginative set pieces, interactive video cycloramas, soundscapes, and fancy lighting instruments. The characters were becoming clearer. The adventure story was making more sense. I played around with crazy accents for my bad guy character and worked on different ways to move. Then the costume designer Fabio Toblini showed us sketches, and I knew exactly who this bad guy was. More kids were invited and changes were made in between each performance – sometimes within an hour of the previous performance. There was a collective spirit of “Yes, and…” from everyone on the team.
This was truly an improviser’s dream. I had been an improviser for years in small, sweaty comedy venues but never in a situation like this. I knew I needed to stay with this weird thing as long as I could. I was disappointed to not be available for the next iteration a year later which upped the ante into a 10-week production. I went to see the show (which coincidentally played across the street from Sleep No More) and was taken by how far the show had come and I was proud to have been a part of its development. When it concluded its run, I assumed it was the end of Pip’s Island.
This past January, I got an email from the creator Rania Ajami with the subject line: “We want you back.” Pip’s was moving into a permanent venue on 42nd and 9th for an open-ended, Off-Broadway, commercial run. I must be honest, I was skeptical about saying yes. I knew the hours would be 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (“Like, a real day job?”). I knew it would be repetitive (“What? 12 or more shows a day?”) And I knew that doing the show would take me away from creating my own shows and touring the world with them as I’d been doing since 2012. I thought long and hard about whether or not to jump back onto the island.
I talked to fellow performers about my dilemma. I recalled the process of creating the character and the collective, creative experience I was a part of. And the answer all came back to the number one rule of improv.
I said, “Yes, and… let’s do this.”
Our previous makeshift sets are now museum-worthy pieces of art. Our fantastically odd characters are now fully-fleshed and dare I say, believable. Our story is completely engaging, thrilling and original. The entire team from front-of-house, to the backstage tech booths, to the incredibly diverse cast members are on the same magical page. Everyone says “Yes, and…” to any challenge. And so does the audience. Every day, I witness the joy and wonder that imagination, creativity, and theater brings to young faces.
Being a part of Pip’s Island has been incredibly rewarding as a performer. It tests my creativity, stamina, and above all, my authenticity and honesty. You can’t phone it in for 500 audience members a day when more than half of that audience is kids. Even though we are approaching our 1,000th performance, every show (or expedition, as we call it) still feels new. I still have lots of room for improvisation which comes in handy on a second-by-second basis as my silly-evil character is booed, cajoled, and questioned by three-year old kids and even their 63-year old grandparents.
In the show, the kids find “sparks” to take them to the next part of the journey. And this unusual, unique show has sparked something in me as a performer, creator, artist and human being. I’m more empathetic, patient and authentic. I smile more. I laugh more. I’m happy to go to work every day to see what adventures await. And, I am so glad I said yes.