Backstage Lake County: The Rules of Comedy at MMS

The Middletown Middle School (MMS) is putting on their Spring play. This year, it’s The Rules of Comedy, by Peter Bloedel. I had never heard of this show, but since my son is doing the sound, I was able to read the script. And, boy is it a good one! The MMS students and director, Joleen Jessen, have some great material to work with.

The show’s full title is The Rules of Comedy, a physically comic extravaganza in one act. When I first picked up the script, it seemed a little light to me. But, after reading it, I can tell you that it’s because a lot of the show is physical humor. A fact that initially threw the cast who didn’t know what to make of being part of an ensemble in this type of show. They would ask, “But, who am I?” And, then they would say, “Oh, so I’m on and then I’m off? I don’t have any lines to memorize. I just have to memorize my cues and I have to know what to do and when…”

The author, Bloedel, also happens to be a family friend. Jessen’s brother is the theatre department chair at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN and knows Peter Bloedel through their previous work together at Bethany Lutheran College, where Pete currently works, also in Mankato, MN. Says Jessen, “His shows are perfect for middle schoolers. They focus on physical comedy and are very fast paced. There’s lots of energy and they are just fun. They are so well written and when presented by middle school kids, the pace and language feels natural. It’s just good material.” 

Bloedel also wrote The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet. And, last year participated in a meet-and-greet with the students where they learned that he’s currently writing a new play about Pinocchio.

Jessen loves introducing the kids to Shakespeare through his plays since “There’s not a lot going on locally other than Shakespeare At the Lake, but that’s in Lakeport.” (She was happily surprised when I told her that the venue has been expanded to include Clearlake for the last few years.)  “I know they will read some Shakespeare in high school, but otherwise, there’s not a lot of exposure. This show is the perfect amount. The kids say, ‘Oh, now I get that allusion. Now, I understand that song.’  This show in particular exposes them to Hamlet; ‘To thine own self be true,’ to ‘To be or not to be,’ and the scene with the skull.” (By the way, the song the kids are listening to is Ophelia by The Lumineers. Take a listen.  It’s pretty good.)

This show, in particular, takes the bloodiest, most tragic scene in all of Shakespeare and turns it into a comedy. You’ll have to come see it to see just how this is possible. But she hints at what’s involved: Rubber chickens, an audience Splash Zone, wet noodles, and a surprise guest.

Despite their initial reaction, the kids have really taken to this show. They love how silly it is. Though, Jessen was surprised that many of the kids find the play more chaotic than they expected it to be. “It’s been challenging for them to figure out how the pieces fit together.”

One sign that they are enjoying themselves is the formed positivity and community.  It takes forever to get them to stop talking and remember they are putting on a play because they mostly just like to be together. Though she says, she shouldn’t be surprised because this always happens.  This sense of community and camaraderie.

As much as Jessen is enjoying the process, the show has not been without its challenges, like the kids’ schedules. “They’re all involved in lots of other things – basketball, dance, wrestling. I look at this as such a good problem! I want kids to be well-rounded. Kids who need -especially at this age – to explore the physical outlet of sports as well as the creative outlets of drama. I have had great experiences working with the coaches who also recognize the necessity of these experiences for kids. It’s been a challenge, but one that I welcome!”

She’s also exhausted. It doesn’t seem like there was as much time between shows this time around. She usually does one in the Fall, but it had to be pushed out to Christmas time. Then this show had to be done earlier than usual because of the room’s schedule. And they recently missed two days due to the snowstorm and at the time we spoke, she feared another storm would further set them back. Her fears were well-founded. School was closed due to weather again on the Monday following our interview.

They also lost a couple of students due to poor grades. Just as school athletes have to keep their grades up, so do those participating in the Drama Club. She’s since reassigned tasks and had to recast a couple of roles, but the kids are rising to the challenge. She’s looking forward to introducing groceries at the next rehearsal. “It’s going to get dirty. There is a janitor character on stage to clean up the mess and it’s necessary.” And, if you want to know what that’s all about, she says that you’ll have to come see the show.

I asked her if she does any particular exercises or processes with the kids. I was expecting tongue twisters or mirroring games. She surprised me with one I’d never heard of. She likes to give them an exercise using a baby carrot. They put the baby carrot between their teeth and she moves to the back of the room. Then she has them say their lines as loud as they can. This is to help them articulate, project from the diaphragm, and strengthen their jaw.

She says that the 8th graders set the tone for the rest of the cast and she’ll be sorry to see them go. Lily Morita, Jimmy Reynolds, Eva Welsh, Mikah Smith, Morgan Royal – “Who is hilarious,” Ren Ueno – “Who just took on the role of Laertes,” and My Nguyen give 100%. She says that she cast Morita and Welsh as the narrators because she knew they could learn their lines; and that they would always know what was going on in the middle of all the chaos; and, be able to keep the flow. They are the thread throughout the show.

She enjoys working with the kids and wants to provide a cool experience. She’s not sure if any of them will ever again do theatre. She doesn’t care if they don’t become actors. She just enjoys providing a non-competitive, cooperative, and creative environment. “These kids may not have this experience again but at least they’ve got it now.”

At every show they sell baked goods donated by the parents of the students. She’s so excited about the donations received after the last show because the MMS Drama Club was able to purchase their own sound system. She’s also super excited that the district has promised to refurbish the space by next Fall. Including painting the walls black, cleaning the curtains, refinishing the floor, fixing and replacing the cabinetry under the stage, and painting the proscenium. And, they’ve agreed to talk to a lighting designer, as well.

After having read the script, I can tell you that this show is very funny, both physically and in its wordplay. You have two opportunities to see it (and to donate through the purchase of said baked goods). The show runs Friday, March 17th and Saturday, March 18th in the cafeteria of the MMS campus. Tickets are only $5. If you are looking for a fun event for the entire family and like to laugh, look no further!

Charise Reynolds


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