Donald Wright sits at the foot of the stage, silently reading along with the script for a dramatic adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin. A gaggle of pint-sized actors huddle on the floor in front of him. They are rapt, watching a trio of their fellow performers break-dance to the genie’s big song, “Friend Like Me.”
This version — which Wright adapted from the film for his Very Merry Theatre in Burlington — has two genies, a girl and a boy. And in this summer’s show at the company’s Old North End performance space, she does all the singing while he acts as her mostly silent but unusually expressive accomplice, his face painted blue. A keen viewer would notice that Princess Jasmine and our hero, Aladdin, have undergone significant transformations since the play began: She has grown at least six inches, and he was black at the start of the show.
Narrative cohesion isn’t exactly what Wright is after.
This director’s prerogative is simple: The kids should have fun, work together and, for a moment or two up there on the stage, find an opportunity to shine. As the audience cheers, egging the dancers on, it’s clear Wright has once again hit the mark.
“I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve been to where Don has 80 kids on a stage by the end,” says Bill Harvey, president of the VMT board and the parent of two alumni. “For the audience, it’s a little disjointed, but for the kids, they’re having the time of their lives.”
Very Merry Theatre began as a summer drama camp and has evolved into a multifaceted community-theater institution, including programs at local schools and community centers, an array of summer camps, Burlington’s annual WigWag! festival, and a 19th-century-style traveling theater wagon with a foldtout stage, which allows the young company to bring outdoor shows to parks throughout the state. Wright has directed children ages 6 to 18 in productions from Macbeth to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to West Side Story. Last year the company performed for 10,000 audience members in five Vermont counties.
Very Merry acquired its own quarters at 333 North Winooski Avenue two years ago, in the back side of a building that also houses Pho Hong restaurant, Good News Garage and a laundromat. In doing so the company made good on Wright’s goal to create an integrated performing arts center that would draw children and families from across neighborhood borders and cultural divisions.
It was important to Wright and the board that their performance hub be rooted in this part of town. They had already built a strong partnership with the Integrated Arts Academy at Wheeler and wanted to reach more children in that low-income neighborhood who might not otherwise have access to a program like Very Merry.
“We knew if we put the home base in the Old North End, if we set up drop-in workshops and Saturday afternoon productions, kids could come by on foot from the neighborhood,” says Harvey. So far, it’s been working “like you wouldn’t believe.”
Along with those kids from the ONE come older teens from other Burlington neighborhoods, volunteering their time. Laura Massell’s 17-year-old daughter, Emily, has been participating in VMT productions since she was 5. Now she works as a summer camp counselor to the younger children at “333.”
“A real striking thing for us to watch, as parents, is the cumulative effect of being in these school-based productions, starting with children at the age where they’re just part of the chorus, to the auditions where they have to explain what they’d like to be this year,” says Massell, whose two younger daughters also participate in Very Merry. “Our kids have grown so much in their confidence, in their ability to think and express and work together.”
The kid-focused company may be far reaching now, but it began as sort of a family pastime about two decades ago. A couple weeks after the Aladdin show, Wright, 52, sits down at a Burlington café to talk about children, Shakespeare and community. He’s easygoing, but has the focus of someone who loves what he does. And during the interview, he asks just as many questions about the reporter as he answers about himself.
Storytelling, Wright says, has always come naturally to him. (“The real magic is that he makes everyone feel like it’s coming naturally to them,” says Massell.) He grew up on the campus of Proctor Academy in New Hampshire, where both his parents taught. His mother, writer and director Nancy Means Wright, started slipping the classics into his hands as soon as he was able to read.
“I spent a lot of time in my childhood sort of banding together kids in the neighborhood to do fun stuff,” Wright says. “I’d often start up detective clubs, story clubs, stuff like that. So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s always sort of been in my blood.”
Wright’s parents instilled a strong sense of community in him at an early age, too. He recalls one spring day when he came home from school to his mother’s suggestion that they go watch the junior varsity baseball team’s first game of the season. Wright loves baseball — he plays now in a Burlington adult league — so he happily went along. But he recalls wondering, on the walk over, why they were going.
“I remember thinking to myself, My brother — he’s five years older — he’s not on this team. Like, why are we watching the JV baseball game? My father wasn’t coaching it. He didn’t coach baseball,” Wright says. So he asked his mother. Turns out, a few of the boys on the team were in her French class.
“[She supported] them above and beyond,” he says. “But for her, it was just, like, that’s what you did.”
After Wright graduated from the University of Vermont in 1983, he started Home Base, a social-services company that supports developmentally disabled adults in living as independently as possible. He still runs it today, with a business partner. But his literary leanings never faded.
When Wright became a father — his first of three sons just turned 21 — he wanted to spend as much time with his kids as possible. So he began organizing summer drama camps. At first it was just his boys and their friends playing games to patch together plot lines. Sometimes they started with Shakespeare; other times they just made stuff up.
“It was something I could share with them,” Wright says.
From those carefree early days, the camps grew organically and steadily into a bona fide year-round nonprofit children’s theater company. Now Very Merry’s shows draw hundreds of kids each year. For the production of Aladdin, the actors came from all five Burlington elementary schools, as well as from Shelburne and Charlotte. And along with these little performers come parents, who volunteer to sew costumes, build sets, help with makeup and fundraise. Burlington musician and VMT parent Brett Hughes has written and performed music for shows. Wright has also enlisted his brother-in-law, guitarist/songwriter Bill Mullins. Always angling to integrate the diverse communities within Burlington, Wright proudly reports that, at a recent production of Peter Pan at Wheeler Elementary, Edmunds parents were in the pit.
It wasn’t the first time the two schools pulled together for a VMT production. According to Wheeler’s (now outgoing) principal, Joyce Irvine, the Edmunds Parent Teacher Organization funded the first schoolwide Very Merry performance at Wheeler six years ago when that school’s PTO couldn’t afford it. Very Merry has been transformational for the school, where many students are learning English as a second language, Irvine says.
“We talk a lot about the ESL kids, but even the [other] Old North End kids, they don’t have the opportunities to get out and deliver anything publicly,” she says. “[By] having that annual play, bringing them over to 333 for a workshop, offering them scholarships, [Wright] really has immersed himself in the community.”
And the community has rallied around Wright.
“The kids can’t wait until they get into third grade so they can be in his performances,” Irvine says. “He takes kids from where they are, builds scripts around them, and that’s what we love about it. He holds auditions, not to find out who the best is, but to find out how he can tweak his script so he can get everyone involved.”
As for his unique adaptations, Wright says he steers clear of the already-condensed-for-kids versions of the classics, such as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare. Very Merry may be about performing, but literacy is an important underlying agenda. Wright encourages his actors to go home and read the original books and plays they’re doing, and he finds they connect to the language more readily than one might expect.
“I think it’s fun to keep some of the original language,” he says. “Kids love to say things like ‘Have at thee!’ you know, when they’re swinging their swords.”
Even young children, Wright says, can intuit Shakespeare. You just have to meet them halfway. He’s staged a production of The Tempest as a circus and King Lear as a Western, because most kids know what it means to be a clown or a cowboy. Give them that one point of reference, Wright says, and they can figure out the rest.
“Not everything has to be explained to us,” he notes. “If you point the way enough and then allow for a lot of discovery and then, as the director, give space for kids to play, they’re always smarter than you expected.”
Wright elaborates, paraphrasing something author Louisa May Alcott once said about Shakespeare:
“It’s kind of like looking at the mountains at night in the moonlight, and seeing the immensity of them,” he says. “You know that sun is going to come up over the mountains and reveal them. But when you’re a child, maybe you’re only getting the silhouette, the sense of majesty; you’re not necessarily comprehending and getting every detail of it. But the power still impacts you.”
Wright gives his mushroom soup a stir and looks up again.
“Life is like that, you know what I mean?” he says. “You only get a little bit of what being a mom or dad is about, even though you spend every day with [your parents] growing up. And then you become a parent and you look back and go, Oh, my God, they were just figuring this out for the first time, they were just winging it! And I thought they knew everything.”
Wright knows a bit more about parenting now than when he started, he says, in no small part because of Very Merry. Within that community he’s had full access to the proverbial village that’s raising its kids, figuring it out together. And even now that his kids are grown, his words ring distinctly paternal when he talks about his goals for Very Merry’s future.
“I see Very Merry continuing to evolve to meet the needs of children all over our wonderful state,” he says. “And to continue to bring people together through the performing arts to build better and stronger communities.”
Wright says he is beginning to really understand why his mother took him to that JV baseball game years ago.
“I was [directing theater] because of my kids in the beginning,” he says. “But by allowing it to grow, it made me realize how important it was for me to be there for all the kids, and that, when my kids were with me, they were just part of the ensemble.”