- Cat Cutillo
- Don Wright directing rehearsals with the cast of Frozen
The young cast of a recent Very Merry Theatre production, The Adventures of Buster Bear, spread across the stage during a rehearsal at the company's headquarters in Burlington's Old North End Community Center. "Rodents, scamper!" called out Very Merry founder and director Don Wright from the lip of the stage. The children, portraying forest creatures, frolicked among the woodland set pieces. One young actor, probably 8 or 9 years old, suggested an alternate version of their blocking. Though the stage directions went unchanged, Wright considered the suggestion seriously and respectfully. It was a small moment, but it said a lot about the theater group's culture.
"[Don's] always open to input," said Trudy Farrell, 15, a Burlington High School student who plays Sandy in an upcoming production of Grease on Friday and Saturday, May 20 and 21. A longtime Very Merry player with more acting credits than she could quickly count, she continued, "It makes better scenes. You can kind of work together versus somebody telling you what to do, which I really appreciate."
Collaboration, inclusivity and adaptability are three of Very Merry's hallmarks. Celebrating its 20th year in 2022, the nonprofit provides a nearly preposterous number of opportunities for young thespians to explore the stage. It partners with Chittenden County schools to produce and perform original plays, and it stages additional shows at its Burlington studio. As its Saturday drama club, running since September, winds up on May 28, a slew of summer camps are gearing up to start.
Wright estimates that he works with 1,000 kids per year in 40 individual productions. In April, he was directing five shows concurrently, with kids from first grade through high school.
Amy Riley of Full Circle Theater Collaborative, another Vermont youth theater group, said Very Merry offers a wide variety of entry points for curious kids. "If you're a student who's driven to sort of explore different areas, you have the opportunity to run with that," she said by phone. "They're designing the costumes and designing the sets. Sometimes they're leading warm-ups and actually running rehearsals."
Very Merry regularly works with schools in Burlington, South Burlington, Westford, Winooski and Essex Junction to put on school plays. Grants from the Vermont Council on the Arts pay for its programs in other schools throughout northwestern Vermont. This summer, it will offer 13 camps, some of which culminate in its famous Traveling Theatre Wagon tours, in which kids perform on a distinctive mobile stage — constructed on an 18-foot boat trailer — that traverses the state.
"I've always looked at Very Merry as a community," Wright said. "Every other art form folds into it. You have architecture and visual arts and singing and dancing and acting and music. There are so many doors into the experience."
- Cat Cutillo
- Very Merry founder and director Don Wright
The son of educators at Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H., Wright grew up in a creative environment. His mother, Nancy Means Wright, who died in early 2022, was a writer who encouraged Don to explore classic literature and theater. In 1987, after delving into film studies in college, he founded Home Base, a nonprofit that provides home care for adults with developmental disabilities.
In the '90s, Wright helped out with plays at Edmunds Elementary and Middle schools, where his sons were enrolled at the time, and he ran summer theater camps in Burlington and Charlotte; the latter still exists.
In 2002, Wright organized his theatrical efforts by establishing Very Merry. His team includes music director Ashley O'Brien, choreographer Karen Amirault, and dozens of set builders, lighting technicians and musicians. Over the years, they've offered more programming than any other children's theater group in the state.
Some Very Merry plays are Broadway Junior versions of shows like Grease, and Disney adaptations such as Moana and Frozen. But the bulk of its productions are original shows featuring legacy characters, such as Peter Pan and Alice (of Wonderland fame), who now are in the public domain. Wright has also adapted Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Titles include Great Expectations; A Midsummer Night's Dream: The '40s Musical; Romeo and Juliet: The '60s Musical; and King Lear: The Western.
Wright pens the stories and song lyrics; the scores are composed by local musicians such as O'Brien, Bill Mullins, Jim Wolvington, Mary Ann Samuels, Mark Ransom and Brett Hughes.
Aside from saving money on licensing fees, Wright said, the adaptations provide an opportunity to create new characters.
"It allows us to have each child have a [named character]," Wright explained — helpful because the troupe makes no cuts. Anyone who wants a part gets a part. And in older students' school musicals — and in all camps — anyone who wants to sing a solo has the opportunity.
Parent volunteerism is integral to VMT's success. Gretchen Platt, whose three kids have been involved with the group, is its lead parent volunteer at Edmunds Elementary.
She coordinates rehearsal spaces, organizes other parent helpers and oversees fundraising. Bake sales and playbill ads ensure that no child is turned away for lack of funds.
Sometimes parents even end up onstage. In past productions of Peter Pan, Peter and other characters "fly" without harnesses and cables. Instead, the actors' parents, dressed in black, lift their kids to a prone position on their shoulders and zoom them around.
"I tend to go kind of low-tech," Wright said, adding, "It's kind of fun and charming to have kids' theater be just what you can do with Band-Aids, bubblegum and children."
Low-tech doesn't mean scarce resources; the company's storage area is stuffed with piles of old backdrops, set pieces and thousands of costumes.
Aside from providing a showcase for the talents of young Vermonters, Very Merry instills confidence, passion and artistic ownership in its actors.
"I think, with the younger groups, [Don] tries to help them create their characters," explained Edmunds Middle School eighth grader Kuba Thelemarck, 14. "But, as we get older, he kind of wants us to have an idea of what our character should be, what they're trying to get and what they want."
"They always make sure that you feel comfortable," added Keola Bennett-Jones, 13, of Hunt Middle School. "Say you're playing a girl character, and they usually wear a dress, and you don't like wearing dresses. They'll change up the costume for you."
Wright said that he and his team will do whatever it takes to ensure that kids have a place at Very Merry.
"It's all about passion and love of theater," said Wright. "Our motto is: All children take center stage. We bend over backward to be inclusive."
20 Years of Making Merry
- Cat Cutillo
- Don Wright in rehearsals with the cast of Frozen
Kids VT asked former Very Merry Theatre participants and their parents to share memories of their time in the troupe and what it meant to them. Here are some of their reflections:
We are so grateful for all the joy and community Very Merry Theatre has brought our family for over 10 years. Both of our sons were involved with Very Merry productions during their childhood, but our younger son, Declan, literally grew up on the Very Merry Theatre stage, participating in 59 shows!
— Colby Kervick and Garth Allen
A favorite memory? I have to look at my experiences as a whole during many years as a boots-on-the-ground parent, a board prez, set builder, marketer and all-around ambassador. Very Merry Theatre is far and away the most extraordinary community builder I've ever been part of.
— Bill Harvey
Favorite memory: When our three kids (Tasha, Dale and Abraham) were in Annie and sang the entire show nonstop during our spring break vacation! It was so heartwarming to hear them all sing together.
— Genevieve Henry
I began helping out with the sound system and set construction projects when my daughter was in first grade, 16 years ago. Don always lays things out as he imagined them but allows room for expression and encourages us all to contribute our own ideas. For sound, it was important to get all those voices (some of them very tiny!) to be heard. When a solo came up, I would get so much joy making that voice soar in all its glory. I strived to pull up even the shyest voices of those that had put so much time in memorizing and rehearsing their lines.
— Greg Hancock
- When involved: Part of the first troupe in 2002; part of the teen troupe; worked for Very Merry Theatre during the summer and for afterschool programming through 2010; served for a year on the board of directors
- Now: Partner and operations manager, Lewis Creek Builders
Very Merry has had an enormous and lasting impact on my life. I have close friends I met 20 years ago through VMT. Adults often labeled me as "shy" when I was a young kid, but performing with Very Merry helped me find my voice and get comfortable putting myself out there. It instilled in me a deep sense of empowerment, responsibility and community. Everyone is coming together to create something bigger and better than any person could do alone. That, paired with the trust and artistic license given to cast members — and teenage staff members — gave me the sense that I can do anything, but that I don't have to do it alone.
Many of my favorite memories are moments when the kids, staff and parents all came together to make magic out of less-than-ideal circumstances during the summer programs. Performing on the wagon on a gorgeous Vermont summer day is fabulous, but my strongest memories are from the rainy days when we transformed a barn, library or church into a forest, jungle or castle in a couple of hours.
- When involved: Ages 7 to 10
- Now: Clark University graduate student studying community development
I really wasn't interested in acting. I have a distinct memory of having to be dragged out of the car to go to one of those summer camps. But I think it speaks to the strength of Very Merry Theatre and the flexibility that they were able to find other things for me to do. I got to paint sets and do all these other things outside of acting that seemed more interesting to me.
I noticed during late middle school and early high school that a lot of the kids who had started out with me were continuing to act with Very Merry, but they were also turning around and mentoring the next generation. I thought it was a pretty profound model of cultivating leadership. Very Merry is partially about the plays, but it's also just sort of about that sense of community.
- When involved: Third grade through senior year at Burlington High School; worked as a counselor at Very Merry summer camps
- Now: Member of the Burlington School Board; University of Vermont graduate student studying clinical mental health counseling
My favorite memory was playing Daddy Warbucks in the eighth grade, in a production of
Annie. It was just so cool to be given a large role. It was with all my best friends, and I got every kid who didn't do theater to come fool around and try it with me.
I think my first play was in third grade — Peter Pan, at Edmunds Elementary. I played a "star." I think the stars were guiding Peter Pan and all the children when they were flying and making sure they weren't hurting themselves. Don just wants to incorporate as many children as possible, and he makes up roles. Sometimes kids are really shy or don't know what to do, and Don makes sure there's a small thing for everyone.
Don is really serious about getting New Americans involved, in getting children who weren't ever interested in doing theater involved. He wants to make Very Merry Theatre as inclusive as possible. There were two kids at Edmunds Elementary when I was there, who I knew really well, who were new to the country. And as they started doing theater, you could just tell that, as the years went on, their English progressed so much more. It's just so cool to see how Don affected the community.
- When involved: Ages 7 to 18; counselor at Very Merry Theatre summer camps
- Now: Student at Mount Holyoke College
Very Merry was an extremely important and impactful part of my childhood. When I was 13, I became a counselor during the summers. People don't often talk about their summer jobs as being the highlights of their childhood, but I can honestly say that many of my fondest memories are from this experience. Being a counselor at VMT provided me opportunities to lead, problem solve, be creative, and learn from Don, Ashley and the older staff members. I got to take on so many roles through that job, from using power tools to build sets, leading raucous games of capture the flag, to having conversations with young campers about our favorite female role models.
I also took so many skills from this job. In the short term, it inspired me to start my own summer camp in my backyard, leading little kids in creating and performing a play. Long-term, it gave me the ability to connect and engage with anyone, bringing even the shyest of campers into the group and making them feel included and welcomed. I can only hope that one day my children will have the same opportunity I did to grow and find themselves through an environment like Very Merry.
Summer Wagon Tour Schedule
All performances are free and open to the public.
DID YOU HEAR?
- Friday, June 17, 6:30 p.m., Staige Hill Farm, Charlotte
THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF PETER, WENDY AND HOOK
- Tuesday, June 28, noon, Richmond Library
- Wednesday, June 29, noon, Fletcher Free Library, Burlington
- Thursday, June 30, noon Deborah Rawson Memorial Library, Jericho
- Friday, July 1, 6:30 p.m., Staige Hill Farm, Charlotte
- Tuesday, July 12, noon, Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, Williston
- Wednesday, July 13, noon, Fletcher Free Library, Burlington
- Thursday, July 14, noon, Shelburne Parade Grounds
- Friday, July 15, 6:30 p.m., Staige Hill Farm, Charlotte
THE MUSIC MAN
- Thursday, July 28, 2 p.m., Hancock House, Ticonderoga, N.Y.
- Friday, July 29, 2 p.m., Charlotte Library
- Monday, August 1, 6:30 p.m., Maple Street Park, Essex Junction
- Tuesday, August 2, 6:30 p.m., Bristol Village Green
- Wednesday, August 3, 6:30 p.m., O.N.E. Community Center, Burlington
- Thursday, August 4, 6:30 p.m., O.N.E. Community Center, Burlington