Simpatico’s THE MEEP PROJECT Brings Innovation to All-Ages Theater

Meeps are adorable creatures who inhabit an island paradise of colorful flora and assorted found objects that wash ashore. They laugh and play and hug and sleep with childlike abandon. Their lives are filled with joy and fun, until they haul in a crateful of evil Others, who disrupt the Meeps’ idyllic existence.

Simpatico’s THE MEEP PROJECT by Ed Swidey. Illustration by Robert Berry.

Simpatico’s THE MEEP PROJECT by Ed Swidey. Illustration by Robert Berry.

THE MEEP PROJECT is a charming collaboration between playwright Ed Swidey and Simpatico Theatre Project. The world premiere development piece (which looked as fully developed as any original production I’ve seen!) employs new methods of storytelling, using movement and sound in place of language.

The experimental concept originated with Swidey in the children’s summer camps and theater workshops he mentors, where students were faced with the challenge of improvising an original mythic story. He “gave the kids a basic structure (good vs. evil), a location (an island), and one word to use (‘meep’), and let them run with it.”

Swidey (who, in addition to writing and teaching, is also an accomplished actor and director) was delighted to find that each of his groups created a completely different world. He then brought the idea to Simpatico Theatre Project, where, instead of children, they cast an ensemble of young-adult professional actors, giving them “the rare chance to invent their own original mythic world by channeling the creative child within them.”

MEEP’s cast includes some of the most noteworthy emerging talents in Philadelphia, with Sara Yoko Howard, Johnny Smith, Sarah Van Auken, and Kenny Williams as the lovable Meeps; Peter Andrew Danzig and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen as the feral Others; Matteo Scammell as their fabulously wicked drag Queen; and Cindy Spitko as the enchanting narrator, who alone communicates in English. The rest of the actors effectively connect with the audience, and each other, by ‘meeping.’ Their proto-lingual characters make themselves understood through inflection and attitude; each displays a unique personality, a distinctive way of moving, and a captivating presence that render language superfluous. It is a method that puts the actors (and, consequently, the audience, be they children or adults) in touch with the expressive possibilities of their innate emotions and body language.

The engaging ensemble is supported by an equally successful artistic team. Direction by Allison Garrett and choreography by Heather Cole, including a slow-motion save-the-day sequence, are exhilarating. Lighting by Leigh Mumford not only sets the mood for the action, but also keenly defines the variant creatures. Original and re-appropriated music by John Greenbaum (including a post-modern version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy) hits all the right notes. And the eye-catching props and set, designed by Christopher Haig and Allen Radway (Simpatico’s Producing Artistic Director), are both imaginative and functional, while incorporating elements from the drawings of local school children via the company’s community outreach efforts.

Radway believes that “theater for young audiences inspires a greater sense of artistic freedom and joyful abandon in its creative process. It thrives in taking risks and creating something new, which is the heart and soul of any effective work of art.” Without doubt, this has been a risk worth taking; the result is an enchanting hour of fantasy, with a serious message on the importance of laughter, joy, and community.

Swidey adds that the value of such family-oriented theater offerings is particularly relevant in our current digital age: “Now more than ever, we are perpetually plugged into some form of technology. These technologies make the world smaller and more accessible, but the danger I see is that kids are rapidly losing the ability, and even the inclination, to think creatively and critically. Getting kids to see live theater is one way to create a future where our children grow into passionate, self-expressive, open-minded, empathetic, and courageous people.”

THE MEEP PROJECT is a giant step in the right direction—not just for children, but for everyone who enjoys being transported to a magical place, where joie de vivre is the norm, and even the meanest Others can be won over with a tickle, a flower, and a “meep!” January 12-22, 2012, simpaticotheatre.org.

Previously published on Stage Magazine.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.