During the Tuesday of Winter Term finals week, a group of theatre students came together to put on a a single showing of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Dog Sees God in the Black Box Theatre at Southern Oregon University (SOU). The rehearsal and production of this entirely student ran passion project started small. According to Grant Luecke who played Snoopy, the group was uncertain about what the final product would be. “We were just happy to be hanging out and singing together,” he said. “Telling people about a performance would be a commitment and we were not ready for that. Not to mention, the theatre department has specific rules for showcases, which we were not following, and we didn’t want to cause any drama with that.”
The actor continued, “The joke about it happening in Meghan Nealon’s living room wasn’t a joke at one point. We considered doing it in Suzanne Homes, and other non-theatre spaces around campus. Our desire was just to show our close friends something fun we were working on.” When they were certain there was something tangible to show people, a date was set, and they started spreading the word. “David McCandless was exceptionally generous, and allowed us to use the black box space in the theatre, but that was never our plan from the start.”
John Alan Hulbert, the lead in both productions enjoyed the experience. “I think it’s great practice to work with other students on student projects because we need to practice communication and teamwork,” he said. “We’re going to be the ones that are hiring each other and suggesting each other to certain projects in the future, why not get that practice now?”
For Kiera Robinson, a stage manager for the shows, “the major obstacle is that the mainstage shows in the department obviously take precedent, so it can be difficult to find rehearsal spaces and times that work for people involved with those shows.” However, she says “there is a lot more freedom in decision-making when you’re working with an all-student team.”
Although the show happened in the middle of finals week, it had a successful turnout and meaningful impact on those who saw it. Nolan Sanchez the director who also played Schroeder and Beethoven in the two shows said he received “a lot of messages the next day” from people saying things like “I needed to see this.” He had never experienced that kind of feedback before and said that “it was nice; it felt like I was doing my job as an artist.”
The first play, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown is a musical comedy with music and lyrics by Clark Gesner based on characters from the comic strip Peanuts by cartoonist Charles Schulz. The play is set when the characters are children and provides background for the staged reading of Dog Sees God, a piece by Bert V. Royal which presents the Peanuts characters as teens.
The show addresses social issues like suicide, sexual abuse, school bullying, gun violence and homophobia, but with an overarching theme of identity and accepting yourself. “The portrayal of anti-gay bullying in Dog Sees God is certainly something that is still relevant to schools, even colleges, in 2018. We aimed to show SOU that actions have consequences and things that make us uncomfortable absolutely need to be examined,” said Robinson. “Hopefully, our presentation of Dog Sees God brought these issues to the forefront of people’s minds, and left them thinking about ways these issues can be improved today.”
To Sanchez, whose favorite cartoon is the Peanuts, “What’s unique with both productions is they feature the same groundwork; the same characters, the same tropes, and the same circumstances but it’s completely different. They’re two very different stories, different feels, different energies, just different everything but the same tropes are happening. It’s the same characters just grown up.”
He continued, “Students, children, young people, adults, anyone can be scared to come forward a lot of the time and claim themselves. [To] claim that they’re proud to be queer, or proud to be on the football team, or proud to be in theatre; just like random things that we are so quick to think ‘everyone’s going to judge me, everyone’s going to hate me, this is not me, not the image I want to reflect,’ and the plays do a great job of telling people to own it. Who cares about them, you are you.”
For Hulbert, these shows “start a conversation that is avoided most of the time. It allows us to reflect and speak up and ask
questions rather than standing idly by and watching. The only thing worse than a self-aware oppressor is one that isn’t.” He continued, “ I think this play is important to have at SOU because it’s inviting and inspiring questions and conversations on difficult subjects, ‘Where do we go from here? How do we help elevate each other? Let’s talk about it.”
He continued, “These two productions complement each other very well in that they’re both about identity.” According to Hulbert, “both shows are about kids trying to discover themselves and learn how to comfortably exclaim, ‘I am me and that is enough.’ As a 23-year-old young man, I still have a hard time with this” said Hulbert. “It was important to use You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown as groundwork for Dog Sees God because it ends with the song Happiness, a song that ends with Lucy saying, ‘You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.’ Fast forward years later to CB in high school, and he’s still struggling to come to terms with who he is, all the kids are struggling. I think it was important to do the musical first to highlight that even when we find the answers and get more grounded, we still lose our footing and get lost along the way.”
You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown was presented as a fully a realized production with lights, music and choreography; Dog Sees God was a staged reading where actors kept in a fixed location with only essential stage movements.
Hulbert said, “I think we created a more intimate experience with the audience by doing a staged reading/concert version of the shows. It felt like story time. Having the audience sit in their chairs or on the floor with their blankets, it felt like we were reading them a story about identity. Something about that feels really sweet.”
Sanchez explained, “The cons for the staged reading are that it’s not fully realized. You don’t have the actions in there, you don’t really have the full play experience of seeing characters fight for what they need physically” said Sanchez, however he says that putting on a staged reading is “less difficult” and “makes the feel of the night less intense.” He says “when you have actors reading off the script, it’s less of how good is the production, how good are these people, it’s more about listening to the story happen,” according to Sanchez. “In a weird way, I think it works better because people are just listening to the story more.”
A talk back with the actors proceeded the show and audience members could ask questions about the characters and comment their own relationship to the productions. Looking forward, Sanchez hopes, “to see theatre go in the direction of instead of just watching it, crying, and going home, we can talk about it after.”