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In some sense, Amy and Richard Thompson have been collaborating for over twenty years, but the Cul de Sac play premiering in Arlington’s children’s theater Encore Stage is their first official one. Richard introduced the comic strip Cul de Sac in the Washington Post Magazine in 2004. It featured Mr. and Mrs. Otterloop (outer loop—get it?) and their two children, the socially-inept and withdrawn eight-year-old comic book fan Petey and his manic younger four-year-old sister Alice, all of whom lived somewhere in D.C.’s suburbs. In Richard’s shorthand for the strip, Alice was an “irresistible force” to Petey’s ‘immovable object’ and the comic focused on the children’s encounters with life, much as Peanuts had done 50 years earlier. The comic was syndicated nationwide in 2007 and ran until 2012 when Richard became too ill to continue it.
Now, with Richard’s wit and talent sidelined by Parkinson’s disease, Amy has stepped forward to bring his characters to new life. Amy has had previous practice at turning Richard’s drawings into reality; Richard drew them as a couple for their wedding announcement and then Amy sculpted it for their wedding cake topper. Recently, City Paper sat down to talk with Amy Thompson and Encore Theater’s Executive Director Sara Duke.
Washington City Paper: In your own words, what is Cul de Sac to you?
Amy Thompson: Cul de Sac is childhood. It’s a reflection on Richard’s childhood, our daughters’ childhood, and the kids they grew up with. The characters are taken from his family growing up—what he was like and also what his brother was like—and also what his own kids were like. Sometimes childhood is fun and joyful, and sometimes it’s just so embarrassing and hard to deal with. That’s what Petey is all about… dealing with other people and how horrible that can be. That’s really what I wanted to preserve with the play script. Not so much doing a live comic strip, but putting childhood on stage. It’s childhood in sophisticated language.
WCP: Why adapt it to theater?
AT: Years ago, people started asking Richard if they could adapt it into a play. I don’t know if they were specifically looking at children’s theater. He turned everybody down, and he would look at me and say, “Why don’t you do it?” It just never seemed like the right time, but then Sara and Encore asked me if I was interested in writing a play, and I said, “Yeah, can I do Cul de Sac?” That’s not what they had in mind at the time, but they said sure.
Sara Duke: We had thought we could adapt a classic, but this was way better. For me, as the executive director, this was such a cool opportunity to present something truly unique. I love that it’s so local, and that it’s personal. I think having Amy tell her story, and her family’s story around it, is really special.
WCP: This is your first full-length play that you’ve written, and, it’s also for your master’s degree?
AT: Yes, I just graduated from Catholic University. I did the adaptation as part of a playwriting class. It was work-shopped through that process. The playwriting professor is Jon Klein, who is a local playwright. We all read each other’s work and then commented. It went through drafts then. For my actual thesis project, I did the set design and prop design, and I’m making most of the props, in order to make them look like Richard’s artwork as much as possible. I’m going to keep them around after the show. Some of them were very, very labor intensive. I just like having them around the house; it makes the place more cheerful. There’s a bright red car in the living room right now.
WCP: How did you decide what strips to use in the story? What is the basic plot?
AT: First I reread everything in The Complete Cul de Sac book, and put sticky notes on strips, noting “this is a good one, this is too.” In the end, it was more important to have a plot line, starting someplace and going a different place. The journey is for Petey to break out of his shell a little bit and for Alice to be slightly humbled and think about other people in ways that she hasn’t before. They do that with each other. Of course, Alice is the instigator of all the trouble and then Petey has to react to it. But with the help of Mom and Dad, and pre-school teacher Miss Bliss of Blisshaven, they get through it.
With the strips, there were some jokes I absolutely had to use because they make me laugh all the time, and they apparently make other people laugh too, because the director pulled one out to use in auditions. We heard it over and over again and it was always funny. I also tried to steal back things that Richard has stolen from our lives that I wanted to reclaim—things that our children had done that he had used in the strip. I said, “Hey, that belongs to the whole family, so let’s put that in here.”
WCP: Did you keep the dialogue Richard wrote in the strips, or did you have to write new material?
AT: Both. There are some direct quotations, like the joke about eating spaghetti with your feet that’s a direct steal. A lot of little things I would keep—situations, but not necessarily dialog.
WCP: The strip is very dialog intense.
AT: It is, but I found that once I had the voices in my head it was very easy to write for them. If I needed the plot to go a certain way, it wasn’t too hard to write for them. There are scenes where you will say, “Ah, that’s Richard,” and there are scenes where you’ll say, “That sounds like Richard, but I don’t remember that.” When our older daughter read it, she said, “Aw, Mom, that’s just Daddy’s,” and I thought, “Should I be offended, or happy that she can’t tell the difference?”
WCP: Did Richard have any advice or suggestions?
AT: He was typically hands-off. When I did an outline, I made him approve the outline before I started writing it. I wanted to make sure I was not doing something that would never have happened [to his characters]. He read through the outline, and he okayed it and he has still not read the finished script. He will see it for the first time on opening night.
WCP: Your adapting Petey’s graphic novel with his characters on stage as well?
AT: Yes, there is an entire section of the stage dedicated to imaginary things that will look and feel different from the others. You will see Bubsey Clownpants and Polyfill and toad zombies moving around full life-size.
WCP: Is Little Neuro in it?
AT: Not live, but Petey’s reading a [Little Neuro] comic book, and he appears on a lunch box. There are things that you will see that aren’t necessarily referred to, but if you’re a fan of the strip, you will go “Ahhh! I remember that.”
WCP: How many props did you actually make?
AT: I don’t know. I think the list of props is about 40 things and that’s not including set pieces or set dressing.
WCP: So you probably built 50 or 60 things. How long did all that take?
AT: Most of it was between January and May, but I did a few things this fall. I wanted the manhole cover to look just right because it is going to be used for a fundraiser. A crew of kids made a second manhole cover to be used on stage, because the fundraising one is going to be in the lobby the whole run.
SD: We’re going to do a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation via Chris Sparks’ Team Cul de Sac. We’re going to let people take a picture on the manhole after giving a donation, so you get to have your own Alice moment.
WCP: How hard was it to turn Richard’s vision into reality?
AT: I think it was easy. It’s labor intensive to do…
WCP: But Richard doesn’t draw in three dimensions. He draws in two. And his table is a generic table, and his flowers are a bunch of squiggles…
AT: Yes, but usually there are multiple views of anything important enough to have a place in the play. And that’s where he came in as a consultant. I would show him pictures of things. We were originally not planning on having a dry sink as part of the kitchen setup, but then we decided we needed a place for the plates and somewhere for Mr. Otterloop to stand and dry the dishes, so I found one on Craigslist. I showed a picture of it to Richard and said, “Is this something the Otterloops would have in their kitchen?” He would say yes or no, and I would bring him color swatches and ask which was right. When he did the original watercolor strips [in the Post Magazine], Petey’s bedroom is blue and purple. When they colored it later in syndication, it’s usually green. I asked, “Which is correct?” and he said blue and purple so I’d bring him swatches of that. So people might not think Petey’s bedspread is the right color, but it actually is. Everything is not exactly proportional. Petey’s bed is not exactly like it is in the strip.
SD: I think all the set design and the props make a great world for the kids to get into character. It’s really rich in a way that most actors don’t get the benefit of. I think what she’s created is such a gift for these kids. It’s very immersive. When the kids move into practicing on the stage, it’ll be really magical.
WCP: What’s your favorite scene in the show?
AT: I think it’s going to depend on what it looks like in the final production. On the page, my favorite is one set in Blisshaven. I like the dynamic between Miss Bliss and Alice and her four-year old friends. Blisshaven’s name is from Kinhaven, and one of the main inspirations for the strip is when Richard was dropping one of our girls off at preschool and a woman in a business suit and high heels comes running out and screaming and she’s being chased by a hamster in a little ball. It was that freaky combination of things that made him think that childhood in Washington, D.C. is different than it is in other places. Mr. Danders the hamster is not in it though; Mr. Danders, I think, would take over. Also, no Ernesto, he’s too implausible.
WCP: What are the difficulties and advantages of using children in a show?
AT: They’re not as focused as adult actors and it takes them a little longer to learn their lines, but kids are fun, and they’re fun to work with. They just bring joy to what they do. And it’s less time for them to remember being four–years-old.
SD: Essentially we’re a learning theater, and some are totally inexperienced and it’s the first play they’ve ever been in. That joy they bring is totally irreplaceable. For the kids in the audience, seeing another student on stage is totally different than seeing an adult. There’s an empowerment there. After each of our shows, the cast comes out and signs autographs. I love watching the interactions. We do plays every so many years, so we have a 10-year cycle, and I would love if it becomes something we revisit again with new students. Chuck Leonard, the director, was really skillful.
WCP: You’re the writer, you built most of the set, but in the end, somebody else is out there telling the kids what to do… is that a relief? Is it weird?
AT: It’s not weird. Chuck and I met before we started casting, and he’s a really, really nice guy and good at what he does. He was very gracious the first time we met and said he loved the script and wouldn’t change a word of it. I had been planning on sitting through rehearsals and doing rewrites of things that didn’t work. His ear and vision is not very different from mine, and if it is, we have quiet talks on the side.
SD: Theater is by nature collaborative, but it’s a playwright’s dilemma. They’re often involved, but they’re not the directors. But a director can see new things, and pull out different nuances, and I find it as an actress to be neat to watch that dynamic.
AT: I’ve already seen them doing things that he and the actors created that I think makes this richer. I don’t object to that at all. I think that Chuck did a really good job of casting the play as far as personality types. He was not worried at all about whether the physical appearance matched the character, because we can always do something with makeup and costuming… and wigs! Our Alice is definitely Alice, and our Petey is definitely Petey, and our Kevin is Kevin. He’s a very, very happy buckethead, although we don’t use that word in the show. We would never call a child a buckethead.
SD: I think all the kids really rise to the challenge of acting these roles and that’s a fun thing for them. They get to try on a totally different character or personality, and they do a great job. It’s really impressive. The kids are between nine and 18, a bit older than kids in the strip, so they’re already having that challenge. I don’t know if any of them are reaching back into their childhood… [laughs]
AT: I think so. You see some of that going on. A lot of the kids that don’t have huge speaking roles are doubling or tripling up on things. Our Bubsey Clownpants is also a toad zombie and also somebody’s mom in another scene. You have to act—no one person can be all of those things at once.
Cul de Sac premieres at Encore Stage from June 3-5 and 10-12. Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre. 125 S. Old Glebe Rd., Arlington. Tickets: $15 Adults; $10 Children.