In Philadelphia, the Arden Children’s Theater presentation of “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” is for anyone who’s ever had a favorite teacher–or a teacher who petrified them to no end. But this theater provides the audience with much more than just the cleverness of what you see on stage.
Director Whit MacLaughlin has helped bring to life the stage adaptation (done by John Olive) from the books by Louis Sachar, and in his words, this is a school that’s not only “topsy-turvy,” but also “sidewaysian.” Characters including Mrs. Gorf, Mr. Pickle (“That’s pronounced “Pee-KELL!”), and Mr. Kidswatter will have kids laughing and adults reminiscing about some of their past profs.
The story and scenery may have some hints of some Roald Dahl’s tales, but here an evil teacher (with magical powers that include turning students into “good apples”) is just the beginning. She haunts the school–where class takes place 30 stories up thanks to an architect who “accidentally” designed the building to be built on its side. And that’s where it begins. When the new teacher, “Mrs. Jewls” arrives, the students suddenly want to learn. And learn they do.
The stage scenery takes its cue from the architecture described in the book, and the set designer’s imaginings of what a “sideways classroom” would look like. The audience is treated to unusual entrances and exits, moving screens, possessed braids, strobes and more in the “off-kilter” school rooms. From a clock and blackboard on the ceiling, there are plenty of odd things to allow your suspension of disbelief to go with on stage.
Before the Show Begins: A Kid-Friendly Preview
While the “adult” theater presentations at the Arden don’t include hot popped popcorn and other fairly inexpensive concessions sold prior to show time, there’s plenty of leeway given during the children’s shows. At certain performances, children are given a chance (a limited amount can sign up in advance) to get a behind the scenes tour prior to show time. They then act as special ushers as part of the “Family Usher Network.” They are introduced to the audience, give out programs pre-show and posters afterwards.
Post Show, All Is Revealed
After the show has finished, the actors appear back onstage and take questions from the audience -and attempt to answer just about anything asked. Our show included answers that allowed us to see how they did some of the special effects, as well as revealing costume secrets and trap doors all over the stage. If you have more questions, the actors can be found in the lobby for a while longer, and at times will sign autographs or take pictures with the children.
A giant piggy bank sits just outside the theater entrance. Money collected from donations put there goes toward the “Arden for All” program, which provides free tickets, books and more to children across the city who may not have access to this art without. All of the actors in the play are teachers for the program.