Pageantry and puppetry.
It’s not a combination that usually jumps to mind when you’re looking forward to a night out at the theatre.
Then again, this is the Fringe.
And there will be plenty to Smile about at the theatre festival — where different is good — as Awkward Stage Productions returns for its second year, bringing with them a pair of young Langley performers and a trunk full of puppets.
Set in Santa Rosa, Calif., circa 1985, Smile follows a group of young beauty pageant contests, vying for the title of California’s Young American Miss.
Bitter rivalries, bullying taskmasters and the daunting spectre of a visit from the national chairman combine to ensure this is one pageant that will be not be pretty.
Smile features 32 young performers from across the Lower Mainland, ranging in age from 14 to 24. Divided into two performance groups, the vast majority of the roles have been double cast, with “junior” and “senior” actors taking turns during the festival, which runs from Sept. 8 to 18 on stages all across the city.
After mounting a production of 13, which was named Vancouver’s Pick of the Fringe at last September’s festival, the youth theatre company returned with a seam-splitting comedy featuring squishy, adorable foam puppets.
OK, maybe not so adorable.
“They’re not nice puppets. It’s not like Sesame Street,” laughs Katie Allinger, a 15-year-old Walnut Grove Secondary student who is performing with Awkward Stage for the first time.
The 1986 Broadway musical by Marvin Hamlisch wasn’t actually written to include puppets, noted Katie, who plays Sean, one of the pageant contestants, in the junior cast.
“It was the director’s idea because it’s youth theatre.”
And that means young people are hard at work behind the scenes and in the orchestra pit, too.
While she’s excited about winning the role, Katie has nothing nice to say about her own character’s, well, character.
“She’s pretty much the antagonist of the show — she’s racist and spoiled. She spends pretty much the whole show trying to sabotage the Mexican contestant.
“It was interesting to try to lock into her character and not present her as one sided,” added Katie, “because she’s, frankly, a bitch.”
And though she’s a bit disappointed she doesn’t get a puppet of her own to play with, acting across from the cartoon-like stuffed characters presented its own set of challenges for the teen, such as learning to interact with the puppet and not the person operating it.
Katie first heard about Awkward Stage Productions while she was doing The Sound of Music with Burnaby’s Footlight Theatre Company last year.
One of her cast mates had appeared in 13 and urged her to audition for their next show.
Katie will enter Grade 11 this fall, but looking ahead to life after graduation, she has her eye set on a career in musical theatre. If all goes to plan, after earning a theatre degree at the University of Toronto, she will head to New York to take her shot at Broadway.
For 16-year-old Patrick Arnott, the production’s only other Langley representative, the future likely holds a career in musical theatre as well.
Whatever puts him on a stage.
“I’ve always loved performing, and the idea of seeing what emotions your performance can (elicit) from an audience.”
The Aldergrove teen, who specializes in dance at Langley Fine Arts School, started acting at 11 years old, performing with the likes of the Fraser Valley Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Gallery 7 and Show Stoppers before joining Awkward Stage.
For Patrick, the puppets are, hands down, the most exciting aspect of the play.
“It’s such a cool idea,” he said.
“(Puppetry) was kind of a dying art and it’s being brought back by Avenue Q and us, he said.
Unlike Katie, Patrick has the distinction of being one of the few youth cast members who also gets to operate a puppet — at the beginning of the show, he handles Judge Ed, one of the panel who will choose the new Young American Miss.
He is also the only member of the junior youth cast who is playing an adult character — stepping into the role of Tommy French, the pageant’s cynical, chain-smoking choreographer.
“It’s going to be a really amazing show — really funny,” he said.
“Try to see both casts,” Patrick advises, “because the same roles are played in a completely different way.
“It’s like seeing two different shows.”
Katie agrees. While she’s portraying Sean as rather clever and devious in her cruelty, her senior counterpart — 24-year-old Ashley Siddals of Burnaby — is taking a far different approach, said Katie. “She’s playing her more as a Valley Girl — kind of stupid.”
She also advises parents to think twice about bringing children under 12 years old to the show, which includes some profanity and partial nudity.
“It’s different, really funny, but definitely not child-appropriate,” she said.
Smile, runs Sept. 8 to 18 at the Firehall Arts Centre, 280 East Cordova St. Tickets are $10 and $12 plus the cost of a Fringe membership. For tickets, go to www.vancouverfringe.com or call 604-637-6380.
Be sure to check out A day in the life of an ordinary puppet at www.youtube.com/user/StageAwkward.