Jelly's founder Sarah Froeber was passionate about proving that family theater is a valid form of artistic expression, as vital to the community as cutting-edge theater. Beginning in 1996, Froeber and her company of 24 artists produced eight new plays in four years, all by North Carolina authors and artists, all with high production values, imaginative dance and live music. The company developed an unusually strong following by exploring issues that arose in conversations with local teachers, parents and kids--issues like inclusion, divorce, fear, sportsmanship and conflict resolution.
Spiders on Strike, Jelly's last play, is a shining example of their efforts. The play looks at a burning issue in school environments right now: prejudice and acceptance of differences. Two species of spiders who don't like each other, the orb-weavers and the jumping spiders, realize that they both live in fear of the human race. They decide to go on strike together and refuse to eat insects until humans agree to stop killing spiders and smashing their webs. The musical is full of authentic scientific details and pointers on tolerance, cooperation and negotiation (not to mention belly laughs).
The company created two plays each year, including Samuel and the Wishards, Melvin the Pelican, The Prince Who Was Afraid of Peanut Butter, The Great Nut Hunt, The Green Man Gets a Hand and Instead of Hitting. Wheelchair Dancer brought to life the world of a young woman in a wheelchair who wanted more than anything to be a dancer, and its message was that everyone should be able to pursue a dream regardless of obstacles.
Jelly began when Sarah Froeber decided to bring together her experiences as a child psychologist and a theater artist. She wanted to present children with the phenomenon of meaningful live theater. "Until they experience it," she told me during rehearsals for Spiders on Strike last spring, "they don't know the difference between theater and TV. I wanted the experience to be high-quality and I wanted the children to be able to see the musicians." She also intended to support artists with reasonable fees for their work and was determined to pay the same rate to everybody who worked on the productions.
Soon after Froeber came up with the idea, her husband Jef signed on as managing director. Jef is a well-known local actor and mime who works with such diverse organizations as the Haw River Festival and the Durham Bulls. He had spent 17 years in children's theater with the Touch Mime company. "Jef is the engine behind the whole thing," said Froeber, "entertaining kids, raising money, fixing the set, loading in and out, helping write plays. He's the person people don't see."
Together they began to build a team of artists, including people of all kinds. "Jelly has never done a show with one type of people in it," said Sheila Kerrigan, a former Touch Mime artist who has directed most of the Jelly plays. The interracial ensemble included former UNC-Chapel Hill basketball player Ed Geth, musician Mike Hamer, who is quadriplegic, and dancer Julia Leggett, who is in a wheelchair.
Finding the company members was a tall order. "That's how I know Jelly is blessed," said Froeber. "In the early days I'd write a role and had no idea if we could find a person who could play it. Jef told me to write what I wanted and the actors would show." There were the fortuitous auditions, like the one that introduced Ed Geth. "He told us on the phone that he was really big," said Froeber. "Then in walks this man-mountain in a suit who starts doing cartwheels."
Other times it was Froeber's networking skills that did the trick. For Wheelchair Dancer, for instance, she needed an adult who could play a child and could sing and dance in a wheelchair. She started calling friends, a circuitous route that led her to Julia Leggett, who auditioned on the telephone with her own rendition of "Happy Birthday." Froeber said she knew immediately that Leggett was "perfect."
"The most beautiful thing about Jelly is the team we built," recalled Froeber. "We have a corps of actors, designers and volunteers that has grown over the years, and things got easier and more rewarding. I'll miss these people so much. They could have been doing things that would bring them more publicity or prestige or look better on their résumés. It's a huge gift. They do it because they care about kids."
As we talked outside the rehearsal space Jef built in the woods near their house in Calvander, she brought out a folder full of letters and drawings from children who came to be a regular part of the Jelly audience. "They say things that will live in my heart forever," said Froeber, producing a child's handmade poster for Wheelchair Dancer emblazoned with the words "I like your play so much you could do it at my house." Another artwork declared "The people in Wheelchair Dancer are just like us!"
Froeber and Jef feel they reached all the goals they set for themselves. They received awards from the Durham Arts Council and The Chapel Hill News, and Dramatic Publishing will soon release the playscript of Melvin the Pelican. Even more meaningful for them, said Froeber, "several other local professional theaters are considering work for audiences of all ages, and local media are beginning to cover family events." Jelly has also added to the culture of mixed-ability dance with its play Wheelchair Dancer, and a spin-off dance company created by Julia Leggett. In addition, the plays were sign-language interpreted, making them accessible to people with hearing challenges, and one was translated live into Spanish through headphone devices. One of their most significant accomplishments, said Froeber, is that they presented a diverse cast of actors "that looks like the audience. Kids see themselves on stage."
With all this success, why quit? Froeber said she saw the handwriting on the wall when Jef told her he needed to move on with his own performing career. "When Jef first said he'd work with me," she said, "he said he'd do it for three years, time enough for me to find and train somebody else. After three I begged for one more. When he decided he had to go, I knew he was irreplaceable. I don't want to work with anybody else."
Froeber will go on writing for the community and be involved in "responsive theater." In the wake of the recent floods in Eastern North Carolina, she has just been commissioned by the N. C. Department of Social Services to write a play about the emotional after-effects of the disaster. The play will eventually tour mental health clinics throughout the region.
"You know you're doing the right thing," said Froeber, "when you follow your passion, and the world needs you."