Fuzzy no more: life after Disneyland

Mouse 2
Trevor Allen re-lives his time behind the mask in Working for the Mouse, a hilarious solo show about what it’s really like for costumed characters behind the scenes at Disneyland. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Last summer at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, Trevor Allen dusted off Working for the Mouse, his finely tuned one-man show about his years as Pluto, Mr. Smee, the Mad Hatter and others on the pavement at Disneyland.

I reviewed the show in June (read the review). Here’s a sample:

Throughout, Allen is a dynamic, highly appealing performer, attacking this coming-of-age story with unflagging energy and crack comic timing. Director Carlin has helped Allen warm up the show and find even more edge to the humor. This is not a Disney-bashing experience, though it certainly could be. Even rabid fans of Disneyland (consider me guilty) will savor Allen’s tales of misbehavior, mismanagement and misbegotten Matterhorn sex.

I also had a chance to interview Allen about the show as he prepared to re-open it at the EXIT Theatre. Read the feature in the San Francisco Chronicle here. Here’s a taste:

Q: So you were studying classical acting during the week and playing Pluto in a hot, sweaty costume on the weekends?

A: Yes, and my classical training came in handy, believe it or not. More than anything, it helped me with creating an attitude on stage that helped gauge and interact with an audience. Later on, when I graduated to playing the Mad Hatter and was allowed to talk, I was able to maintain a character in the face of withering sarcasm from hipper-than-thou teenagers and 8-year-old agnostics who want to pull off your nose. It’s tremendous training for live theater, where everything can and does go wrong.

Trevor Allen’s Working for the Mouse continues through Dec. 17 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$22. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.

Mouse tales live again

What would Walt think? Working for the Mouse, Trevor Allen’s one-man recollection about being a costumed character in the Magic Kingdom, returns to Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

About nine years ago, Trevor Allen lifted the veil on an operation so shrouded in secrecy and intrigue that the merest glimpse inside set people salivating. He revealed what it was actually like to be inside a costumed character in Disneyland.

Oh, yes, This is deeply inside stuff. And sweaty. And hilarious. It’s what you call a theatrical experience bursting with character.

Allen’s autobiographical solo show, Working for the Mouse, premiered at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre in 2002 then transferred to San Francisco. Now Allen is reviving the show for Impact and his own Black Box Theatre at La Val’s Subterranean.

The estimable Nancy Carlin has taken over the directing reins from Kent Nicholson, and the revised show is sharper and funnier than ever.

Allen hits the stage ready for battle in shorts, knee pads (one of the characters is a pint-sized guy, so there’s a lot of time on bended knee) and a vintage “Zoo Crew” T-shirt (that’s how Disneyland’s costumed atmosphere characters are described) emblazoned with Jiminy Cricket. Like any good Disney employee, he’s also wearing his name tag.

We learn that at age 17, Allen left his hometown in the Bay Area to find seasonal work in Disneyland. Throughout the 70-minute show he glances off the deeper theme of not wanting to grow up, but he’s also beginning to flex his young actor muscles. His dream is to be a “face character,” which is to say a character like Peter Pan or Prince Charming who is not engulfed in a full, furry body suit. The face characters also tend to have what every actor desires: voice clearance. They get to talk to the guests rather than remaining a mute sweat bomb in a giant head and stuffed body.

We watch as Allen progresses through the character infrastructure. First he’s Pluto, then pirate Mr. Smee, then a talking Mad Hatter, and we can see him maturing and opening his eyes to some of what the real world – even in its Magic Kingdom form – has in store for him. He gets hazed by the veterans in the department, has his heart broken and gets his best, most creative intentions trampled by the corporate machine.

Throughout, Allen is a dynamic, highly appealing performer, attacking this coming-of-age story with unflagging energy and crack comic timing. Director Carlin has helped Allen warm up the show and find even more edge to the humor. This is not a Disney-bashing experience, though it certainly could be. Even rabid fans of Disneyland (consider me guilty) will savor Allen’s tales of misbehavior, mismanagement and misbegotten Matterhorn sex.

One of the things that tickled me the first time I saw the show was Allen’s Ed Wynn impression – a necessity for anyone playing Disney’s version of the Mad Hatter – and that delight is still very much present here. Another huge piece of enjoyment, especially for Disneyphiles, is the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, which is filled with wonderfully incisive references to rides and movies.

Allen has honed Working for the Mouse to an impressive level, but that’s not all. There are more tales to be told. If the show leaves you wanting more, and it will, check out Allen’s book-in-progress at www.workingforthemouse.com.

Trevor Allen’s Working for the Mouse, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Black Box Theatre, continues an extended run through July 16 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Trevor Allen takes a Roadtrip

There’s bad news aplenty in the world, so it’s always nice to discover some bright spots of good news, especially in the theater world.

Trevor AllenSan Francisco playwright Trevor Allen, who had a sizable hit last fall with his adaptation of Frankenstein, received a walloping dose of good news the other day. PlayGround’s New Play Production Fund chose his play Lolita Roadtrip to receive a $15,000 grant for production at San Jose Stage Company next season.

“I am extremely grateful for this opportunity,” Allen said. “Jim Kleinmann and PlayGround have made a unique commitment with this new grant. By awarding the money directly to San Jose Stage Company to produce my play, they have insured that my work will actually have a life. In the past I have been the fortunate recipient of a few commissioning grants, which have allowed me the much needed time and support to create new plays. Of course, I wish there were more such opportunities for local playwrights because there are some amazing writers here who are truly deserving of recognition. But a play just sitting there on a laptop is like a blueprint for a house, it may look good on the page but the real test is to actually build it and then have a family move in and live in it for a while. Then you have a home. That’s what this production grant means to me. It has given my play a home.”

Here’s more from the folks at PlayGround:

Allen’s Lolita Roadtrip was originally commissioned and developed by PlayGround last season as part of the 2009 Best of PlayGround Festival. This darkly comic play follows Julia (a rebellious Stanford graduate student researching her thesis) and Danny (a hitchhiking teenaged runaway she picks up) as together they retrace novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov’s actual 1941 roadtrip from New York to Stanford. A series of cross country adventures ensues bringing them closer to Julia’s climactic confrontation with Professor Drake (the man who stole her innocence and plagiarized her journal). Nabokov’s spirit visits them and somewhere between the Grand Canyon and Los Vegas they confront their own dark pasts and discover what really causes a chrysalis to transform into a butterfly. Lolita Roadtrip will mark Trevor’s second world premiere with San Jose Stage Company, following the 2005 hit Tenders in the Fog, originally commissioned and developed by PlayGround. He is currently working on a third PlayGround commission, Golden Gate Fair (set in the Bay Area), which will receive a staged reading on Sunday, May 30 as part of the 2010 Best of PlayGround Festival at Thick House.

Allen said his experience working on Tenders in the Fog revealed San Jose Stage to be “wonderfully supportive of my work.” The new production is another homecoming for the San Jose native. “Besides a brief stint at UCLA for theatre I spent half my life there, and most of my family lives there. Now having spent the better part of two decades living and working in San Francisco, it is interesting to return as a playwright and have my words come to life there.”

Also receiving a PlayGround New Play Production grant (for $5,000) is Just Theater, which will produce Erin Marie Bregmann’s Nightmare Play at the Berkeley City Club.

Keep up with PlayGround at playground-sf.org.

Keep up with Trevor Allen at his excellent site, Working for the Mouse.

It’s alive! Death and theater

Two extraordinary shows are lighting up Bay Area stages, and in each of them, the specter of death hovers in the shadows.

In Trevor Allen’s intelligent, compassionate adaptation of Frankenstein at the Thick House, Victor Frankenstein defies death by creating life from dead parts and cowering from the unexpected results.

Erika Shuck Cong and Sean San Jose in The Future Project: Sunday Will Come

Over at Intersection for the Arts, Campo Santo and the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project ponder the death of a goldfish and, through engaging text and movement, ruminate on the nature of life and breath in The Future Project: Sunday Will Come.

Both pieces, while they couldn’t be more different from one another, are completely compelling and find grace amid seriously dark subject matter.

In Sunday, a whole troupe of people, led by performers Erika Chong Shuch and Sean San José, have created a simple, hour-long three-hander about a seemingly small matter – a man and woman (Shuch and Sean José) contemplate the illness and imminent death of their goldfish. They act out the creature’s fight for breath through some extraordinary movement on a small but sturdy table, and their discussion of this aquatic mortality resonates in larger waves.

Troubadour Denizen Kane weaves in and out of the central action, lending the tale his soulful voice and songs that give the show a soothing pulse and a throbbing heart.

There’s none of the pretension that can come from a hybrid dance-theater-music-spoken word piece because the performers are so incredibly focused, so funny and so intensely emotional. They seem to live partly in the world of boring, normal people and partly in the world of extraordinarily talented artists who sing and move and speak on an entirely different, entirely dazzling plane.


Allen’s The Creature is equally dazzling but in entirely different ways. His adaptation rescues Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the domain of creature features and returns it to the domain of gut-punching drama, where it belongs.

Taking his cure from the 1818 novel, Allen gives his stage over to three narrators: Captain Walton (Garth Petal), who is searching for a sail-able passage through the North Pole; Victor Frankenstein (Gabriel Marin), a scientist with a gift for reanimating dead matter; and the Creature (James Carpenter), who had the bad luck to be created by a scientist unable to bear the responsibility of his great work.

Time bends as we hurtle back and forth between past and present as the tale of Frankenstein’s creation takes shape and we, along with the scientist, begin to comprehend the scope of what he has done in creating a man from disparate dead parts. The sea captain makes for a sympathetic ear, but what really makes the story land is hearing from the Creature himself.

While Petal and Marin are grounded, intense and wonderful, Carpenter’s Creature is simply astonishing. This is the kind of performance – brave, complex and utterly devastating – that lingers for days, if not years afterward. Often crouched on a table and cast in shadows by Stephanie Buchner’s lights, Carpenter creates a vision of a misunderstood giant with minimal makeup and virtually no gimmickry. Props to Boris Karloff and his makeup team, but Carpenter is the real Creature – not a grunting monster (or one that warbles “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for that matter), but an eloquent soul touched with self-sustaining genius and afflicted by shattering loneliness.

Carpenter, under the direction of the always-astute Rob Melrose (of the Cutting Ball Theater), is giving the can’t-miss performance of the season. He already has the reputation of being one of the very best actors in the Bay Area. His work in The Creature allows us to see something he hasn’t really shown us before. And it is, in short, magnificent.
(PHOTO CREDIT: James Carpenter in The Creature by Allesandra Mello)


The Future Project: Sunday Will Come continues through Nov. 7 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25 on a sliding scale. Call 415 626-2787 or visit www.theintersection.org

The Creature continues through Nov. 7 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St.,San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415 401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org or www.blackboxtheatre.com

Listen to Black Box Theatre’s podcast of The Creature featuring James Carpenter here.

Warm and fuzzy: `Working for the Mouse’ evolves

A man of character, Trevor Allen decided to put his character life behind him.

Having detailed what it’s really like to work as a costumed character in Disneyland in his popular solo show Working for the Mouse, Allen made a conscious decision to focus on his burgeoning career as a playwright. Mouse, under the direction of Kent Nicholson, had a great run at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre (and a transfer to the EXIT in San Francisco), but the time had come to hang up the ears and write.

Trevor Allen

He had abundant projects, including one about Albert Einstein with found-object puppeteer Liebe Wetzel, another about artificial intelligence that the Magic Theatre picked up for its New Media Festival and yet another assignment to write something for Playground.

The resulting plays, One Stone, The Nutshell and Tenders in the Fog respectively, were all well received but only Tenders ended up being produced (by San Jose Stage Company). Then came Zoo Logic and Lolita Road Trip, two more projects that generated readings and interest but, so far, no actual productions.

Rather than do the writerly thing and revel in despondency, San Francisco resident Allen headed back to the Magic Kingdom. For just a few jam-packed performances in the summer of 2005, he resurrected Working for the Mouse at Bus Barn Theatre in Los Altos. For those few shows, he traveled back in time to age 17. He was an acting student at UCLA (studying with “The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed, no less) and worked at Disneyland, first as Pluto, then as Capt. Hook’s first mate, Mr. Smee, then as various characters including Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), Friar Tuck (from Robin Hood) and Gideon (the mute cat from Pinocchio). He graduated to “face work,” meaning he wasn’t enclosed in plastic and fur, with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and actually got to utilize his improvisational skills when interacting with park guests.

A friend of Allen’s from Los Angeles encouraged him to come do Mouse at a small North Hollywood theater. “It’d sell out!” the friend said.

And Allen wondered, if he took the show to LA, if that is exactly what he’d be doing: selling out.

“I had considered taking the show to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, then I had to think about LA, and then I thought, `Do I really want to be the guy who does funny voices and plays Pluto and the Mad Hatter?'” Allen says over lunch at, yes it’s true, Pluto’s.

That’s when Allen’s wife, Theatre Bay Area magazine editor Karen McKevitt, said it was time to do something serious about Working for the Mouse. She pointed out that when he talked about his four years as a character in Disneyland, he always had fresh stories to tell that never made their way into the show. She landed on a solution: Turn the stories into a book utilizing the factual but entertaining writing style known as creative nonfiction.


Allen is currently hard at work on that book. Until he finds a publisher brave enough to weather the Disney waters, that book-in-progress is also a blog: www.workingforthemouse.com. This is the 21st century, after all.

“As a performer, you get immediate response from an audience,” Allen says. “You know when a story or a line works or doesn’t work. The same is true with the blog. You put it out there yourself – you don’t have to wait for someone to publish you. There’s no barrier between the artist and the audience anymore. I hear immediately from people, some who love Disney, some who hate it.”

The blog belies Allen’s theatrical roots because there’s a whole lot more available than chapters (called “mouse droppings”) of the upcoming book. There’s performance video and, to the author’s great delight, podcasts in which the actor gets to exercise his expertise with voice over narration.

“Now that I’m not writing for performance, I’m able to get into the heads of the other characters more,” he says. “Then turning that into audio is great fun.”

Working for the Mouse is, in many ways, Allen’s coming-of-age story. He was a 17-year-old San Jose native, somewhat naïve, getting a fast education about life in the real world. Backstage and after hours at Disneyland was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but it was also more than that.

“It was a real education,” Allen says. “What I saw there, backstage and during work hours, was tragic, raw, funny and sad. From inside the costumes, you saw a parade of human tragedy going by in the guests. At a certain point after I had left the Disney bubble, it occurred to me, `Why is no one telling this story?'”

One answer is easy: because Disney will sue your pants off. They’ll cease and desist you so quickly you won’t know your Mickey from your Mouse.

“I’ve always thought that in the world of theater, the more controversial the better,” Allen says. “Freedom of speech is supposed to allow for that. But Big business has co-opted the place of religion and government in dictating what you can or can’t say. I’m of the school, as a playwright, a performer or a writer, you have to tell stories that haven’t been told, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

So far, response to the blog has been good. There’s even been some interest in reviving the one-man show, which Allen says he’d be happy to do, especially since working on the Mouse has given him new insights.

“This has been a process of rediscovery,” he says. “The arc of the show would likely remain unchanged, but I think I’m finding some other stories with some different resonance.”

Here’s a taste of Working for the Mouse, the show and the Web site:

Visit www.workingforthemouse.com


Animal sex and theater money

Is it hot in here or is it just the animals?

Crowded Fire Theater Company is holding a fundraiser, and it’s of the hot and steamy variety. Sort of.

Playwright Trevor Allen has been working on a play, Zoo Logic, about his experiences as an employee of the San Francisco Zoo. As part of his research, he interviewed Jane Tollini, a former Zoo employee who became famous for her Valentine’s Day sex tour.

Somehow, during their discussion of hot-and-bothered animal love, Crowded Fire came up.

And now Tollini is giving an hour-long virtual sex tour as part of Crowded Fire’s summer fundraiser, Summer Lovin’: A Sex Tour with Jane Tollini. And the beauty part is you don’t even have to go to the zoo.

Press materials state that the presentation is “not for the weak of heart…Her factual, yet entertaining, take on the birds and the bees manages to shock even San Francisco’s unshockable audience!”

The event is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2 at the Magic Theatre (Southside), Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door or $25 if you buy them in the lobby at Crowded Fire’s current production, The Listener, at Traveling Jewish Theatre.

Money raised from the event will help support the September workshop of Allen’s Zoo Logic.

For more info: Visit www.crowdedfire.org

The (puppet) theory of (puppet) relativity

Here’s an intriguing subtitle: “A found-object puppetry play inside the mind of Albert Einstein.”

That subtitle is attached to One Stone: Einstein, a work-in-progress from two of the Bay Area’s leading theatrical lights: playwright Trevor Allen and puppeteer Liebe Wetzel (along with her Lunatique Fantastique puppeteers).

The play, which involves found text, found-object puppets and David Sinaiko as Albert Einstein, receives two readings: 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 19 at Stanford University and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 20 at Traveling Jewish Theatre (470 Florida St., San Francisco). These are free “in the rough” presentations presented by the Playwrights Foundation.

You can RSVP by e-mailing rsvp@playwrightsfoundation.org or by calling 415-626-0453, ext. 105.

It’s aliiiiive!

You know it’s a new world of technology when they start doing plays in podcast form.

Trevor Allen’s Black Box Theatre Company is celebrating Halloween in a big way. On Monday night, which you might call Halloween Eve, Allen gathers a top-notch cast of Bay Area actors for The Creature, his own version of the Frankenstein story, this time told from the creature’s point of view.

Kent Nicholson directs a cast that includes James Carpenter as the creature, Andrew Hurteau as Capt. Walton and Paul Silverman as Victor Frankenstein.

The production will be performed before a live audience and recorded for broadcast in podcast form on Oct. 31 via www.blackboxtheatre.com.

“There are two sides to every tale,” Allen says. “This is the creature’s story.”
Director Nicholson adds: “By telling the story from the creature’s point of view, we not only explore the ethical and scientific issues in the original story but it also becomes a story about alienation and the effect of being outcast as an `other’ in society.”

The event is at 8 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended. Visit www.blackboxtheatre.com or call (415) 731-4922 for information.