Never underestimate a child’s resourceful imagination. Cass, who is just shy of turning 10, becomes Super Cat. Cass’ best friend, Ray, who already has turned 10, is Reptile Robot. Together, they battle Captain Squid and Octo-Baby. During their sleepover, Cass and Ray learn a lot more from each other about what it really means to best friends. Ray learns a new “real” word – raucous – from Cass, who explains that it means “loud and obnoxious.” Both agree that they are “loud and obnoxious,” to which Cass says, “Yeah, duh, that’s why we’re best friends.”
Presenting: Super Cat and Reptile Robot, written by Rachel Bublitz, is the eighth installment in the outstanding series of children’s plays in Plan-B Theatre’s Free Elementary School Tour (FEST). Normally, the tour would cover dozens of schools throughout the school year, reaching thousands of Utah students. However, as the pandemic continues to cast its stubborn shadows, the company retooled this year’s production, a 30-minute play geared toward students in grades 2-4, as a podcast. Plan-B also has customized study guides for use in any educational setting (including an at-home version).
Also, artist Katherine Jelte, with layout design by Aaron Swenson, created two sets of coloring pages based on the play. There are two recorded versions of the play, which is directed by Jerry Rapier – one with Talia Heiss as Ray and Melissa Salguero as Cass while the other features Tyson Baker as Cass and Benjamin Young as Ray. Cheryl Ann Cluff rounds out the team as sound designer. During the podcast, listeners are instructed to pull a specific coloring sheet. The two sets of pages feature the actors from both podcast versions along with key elements in the corresponding scene. This includes the snap-side-five-double-five hand signal Cass and Ray use.
Bublitz’s wonderfully written play and character-precise performances by both sets of actors underscore a major pillar in Plan-B’s programming. The FEST series consistently treats its youngest audiences with theatrical works that celebrate youthful exuberance of playtime and fantasy with intelligent insights that student listeners discover on their own. I also highly recommend listening to both versions of the podcast. The only changes are incidental pronouns in the script but the aggregate of both performances truly captures the depth of the genuine friendship Cass and Ray enjoy.
Bublitz’s play, which is, in part, about respecting and setting boundaries for personal space at sleepovers, was completed before the pandemic. And, Plan-B’s study guide, a component that accompanies all of the company’s FEST plays, offers an explanation about why the production team decided to proceed with a play about sleepovers during a time when so many people have not been able to see their friends. As the guide notes, “We acknowledge that sleepovers and play-dates like the one depicted in the play are off limits for the time being for many students, but that doesn’t make discussions about being a good friend and demonstrating respect for others less crucial. Indeed, as in-person interactions gradually become common again, it’s more important than ever to be aware of and intentional about how we physically interact with each other.” The lessons about communicating and personal boundaries presented in Bublitz’s play always will be relevant throughout anyone’s lifetime and they are presented maturely and gently through young character voices.
Plan-B also has arranged for libraries at each school presenting the FEST play to receive copies of two books that amplify the themes in the play: Let’s Talk about Body Boundaries, Consent & Respect by Jayneen Sanders (2017) and The Great Bug Hug by Isy Abraham-Raveson (2019).
The audio performance is introduced briefly by Sharah Meservy, Plan-B’s education coordinator, who returns at the end of the play with Rapier to discuss briefly (five minutes) with students about how they might connect with the themes and characters.
There are at least four takeaways, which the study guide has outlined. They include dealing with communicating and respecting personal boundaries, speaking up when uncomfortable with a social situation, becoming sensitive to reading body language and nonverbal cues from others, and responding respectfully to differences in opinions or preferences.
Take note of Bublitz’s sensitive balance in terms of how both friends discover these epiphanies in their own ways. Cass’ favorite movie (Destructo Dragon) is not one Ray particularly likes. While both love cheese pizza, Ray was hoping for s’mores for dessert (and even brought the ingredients to make the gooey treat) but Cass insists that they will have ice cream, just as they always do. When they are in the midst of their imaginary adventure, they disagree about the venue for defeating their enemies (volcano v. aquarium). Also, Cass would prefer that their adventures be “tickle free,” even though Ray loves being tickled.
Cass says, at one point, “It’s- I- We- I like all the same stuff you do, I do!” and Ray responds, “I know you like most of the stuff I do.” Cass says, “NO! I have to like all of it otherwise we wouldn’t be best friends.” Ray says, “That’s not true! I don’t like LOTS of stuff you like but you’re still my best friend!” In each version, the actors handle these lines with the conviction that they could be spoken by kids of this age.
The study guide is quintessentially clear and accessible without any didactic approaches. FEST is designed to satisfy requirements as set out in Utah State Board of Education Arts Core Standards for drama: Strand 3 (Respond) and Strand 4 (Connect). Regarding the other standards – Strand 1 (Create) and Strand 2 (Perform) – Plan-B has published in both English and Spanish a downloadable 16-page curriculum Playwriting With Young People (Escribiendo Obras Con Los Jóvenes) by playwright Julie Jensen, along with supporting materials (audio files, videos and worksheets, pacing guides and lesson plans).
Plan-B’s FEST plays also adapt well to other curriculum areas, including STEM. In the play, Cass, who has the free-spirited demeanor of an aspiring inventor, has created the Mega Remote 2000. One suggested exercise is to ask students to bring in old or broken appliances (alarm clocks, cameras, or CD players), which can be disassembled and then try to put back every part in place or retrofit the pieces to become a new object.
Plan-B’s profile in public educational outreach has become an essential part of keeping creative activities going for students during the pandemic, especially when they cannot be in the classroom. This includes the In The Classroom program, and one activity this fall will be a four-hour teacher training in partnership with the Utah Education Network (UEN). Participating teachers will receive $200 and a certificate of completion. Plan-B also has received grants from the Utah State Board of Education’s Professional Outreach Programs in the Schools (POPS), which is designed to bring arts organizations into public schools to enrich the curriculum. More information about remote learning activities is available at the Plan-B website.
The podcasts will be available through June 4, 2021 and can be streamed by downloading Plan-B’s free app on Apple or Google Play or directly at the company’s website. Meservy also can be contacted through the Plan-B website to arrange for bringing the podcasts and coloring sheets to classrooms in Utah schools.