The life of a B Street Theatre School Tour actor isn’t particularly glamorous.
As the four-member cast sings in its current production, “Fantasy Festival XXVIII,” their shows aren’t presented on grand, gilt-edged proscenium stages but in Hefty Bag-strewn black box spaces that double as storage rooms, and on cafeteria floors where every on-the-fly, deep-breath break “backstage” is a reminder that it’s “Sloppy Joe Day.”
There are no early-evening, red-carpet arrivals, but a series of commuter-traffic-fighting morning calls at more than 100 Northern California schools each season.
And said arrivals aren’t facilitated by chauffeur-driven limo, but by a shared trailer-towing van that brings to mind a 16th-century pageant wagon – the kind that brought mystery plays to miracle-hungry villagers throughout England.
But for Sacramento native Tara Henry – who joined the troupe in March following a string of well-reviewed performances for Sacramento Theatre Company, Imprint Theater Works, Capital Stage, Sacramento Shakespeare Festival and other local companies – playing in front of little kids while working with fellow big kids is a miracle come true.
“I’ve always wanted to work with the B Street’s School Tour,” said Henry, a Folsom High School grad and California State University, Long Beach alum. “I’ve always loved kids and it was important to me that I got to perform for them.”
Children and adults will have the opportunity to see Henry and castmates Michael Pollock, Kristine David and Cory Buffaloe Saturday at 10 a.m. when the B Street Theatre presents a free public performance of “Fantasy Festival XXVIII” at its midtown playhouse (2711 B St., Sacramento). The "Fantasy Festival XXVIII" tour continues through June 6.
Henry’s proven talent as a comic chameleon caught the attention of B Street Artistic Director Buck Busfield and Associate Producer Jerry Montoya when the pair took in her performance as Mrs. Gardiner/Charlotte Lucas in STC’s 2013 production of “Pride and Prejudice.” They decided she had just the right mix of manic moxie and inspired lunacy that makes for a successful School Tour performer, and invited her to join up.
“The School Tour had a need for someone with experience in multiple-character creation, and the ability to think of different characters on a whim,” said Henry.
“Tara’s reputation preceded her,” said Greg Alexander, director of “Fantasy Festival XXVIII.” “(B Street Theatre company member) Michael Stevenson directed her in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at STC and sang her praises, so I was glad to hear she was on board for ‘Fantasy Festival XXVIII.’ The challenge with these school tour shows is to make each character you play distinct and believable. Because there are many pieces with multiple characters – in this case six short plays – it can be a daunting task for the actor.”
In this year’s “Fantasy Festival” plays – chosen from the more than 300 B Street Theatre playwriting contest entries written by Northern California elementary and middle school students – Henry plays a teacher (“The Folded Paper Mystery” by Holden Vigna, Williamson Elementary, Rancho Cordova), a “snotty” little rich girl (“The Teleporter” by Diana Vang, Ilynne Xiong and Carina Candelario, Sierra Enterprise Elementary, Elk Grove), Greek deities Aphrodite and Hades (“The Greek Teaching” by River Swanson and Jonny Apodaca, Crocker-Riverside Elementary, Sacramento), a chicken named Sally (“Could You Bring Me Some Eggs” by Lilly Lo, Taylor Street Elementary, Sacramento), a schoolyard bully (“The Folded Paper Mystery” by Holden Vigna, Williamson Elementary, Rancho Cordova), and a riding crop-wielding dentist (“Cavity Troubles” by Michelle Ivanov and Lyuda Skidan, Gateway Community Outreach Academy, North Highlands) Alexander describes as “part-Tim Curry, and part-Julie Andrews.”
“She’s fearless,” Alexander said. “She completely abandons herself to each role. Her physicalization of the characters is amazing. Sally the Chicken is worth the price of admission. She’s a force.”
Those familiar with the B Street’s well-chosen family of actors, knows Busfield is a master of chemistry who consistently demonstrates that casting talent and directors is as important as play selection.
To her delight, Henry’s personal goal to participate in theater that motivates social change, that entertains, and that expands a child’s imagination is one shared by Alexander and other B Street vets. His personal directorial style also suits her, she said.
“Greg is one of my favorite directors,” said Henry. “He’s good with kids, he’s level-headed, and allows his actors the freedom to create. He’s the perfect director to have.”
Alexander’s praise for Henry is echoed by School Tour veteran Michael Pollock who said her humor-leavened work ethic has proven invaluable to her newfound band of B Street brothers and sisters.
“Tara is wonderful to work with,” said Pollock. “She is very funny, especially when she says, "Too soon?" after a joke. She is also tough and supportive of her fellow castmates. This tour is fun, but very rigorous, and there have been many long days and countless times a well-placed quip from Tara or a timely pat on the back has helped me to have a better and brighter day. I feel very lucky to have her as my co-worker and friend.”
Henry says “rigorous” is an understatement. With as many as three separate school stops per day, the School Tour schedule is a marathon made up of a series of wind sprints. The actors must adhere to a basic training-like lifestyle in order to survive.
“We’re busy, that’s for sure,” Henry said. “It’s been one of the most energy-filled things I’ve done – we’re always on the go. I have to get eight hours of sleep, eat breakfast, and make sure I’m physically capable of constant movement. Each show is like a 45-minute cardio workout. Though some rooms are air-conditioned, some aren’t and it’s important to stay well-hydrated. We have to make sure we take care of our bodies.”
To that end, not only is the action onstage well choreographed, but every offstage moment as well. Henry said she has programmed every opportunity to catch her breath, take a gulp of water, wipe a brow, and switch character gears (along with costume changes) into her between-scene routine.
Henry’s sense of humor – well showcased in “Fantasy Festival XXVIII” and in such previous shows as Sac Shakes’ 2012 production of “Comedy of Errors” (as the tongue-wagging twins) – also keeps her (and her fellow actors) going. Pollock isn’t the only colleague to say that Henry’s talent for lifting spirits surpasses even her ability to hoist scenery flats.
“Tara is such a blast to be on the road with,” said Kristine David, who returns this year for her second tour of “Fantasy Festival” duty. “She loves to take tons of pictures and makes fun of herself by saying, ‘What a freaking tourist!’ She is always hilarious and incredibly hard working.”
Henry said she’s definitely blessed to have found a role within the B Street’s School Tour team.
“I’m lucky to be in the group we do,” said Henry. “The comments we’ve received have been so positive; it’s rare to find a group that works together so well. That sense of family is definitely picked up by kids and teachers.
“It’s a harmonious blend of awesomeness.”
And as challenging as her current role can be sometimes, Henry said she wouldn’t have it any other way, and hopes her relationship with B Street continues.
“They’re so set on community development, and in seeing that kids have artistic growth – I hope I can continue with them,” said Henry who, until recently, had to maintain a less-than-fulfilling office job to make ends meet. “Now, I get a pay check while effecting social change. I feel like I have a life-purpose now and that’s a pretty cool thing. I feel like I’ve found my calling.”
· FANTASY FESTIVAL XXVIII
· WHAT: 5 plays written by children, performed for children by professional actors.
· WHEN: March 17 - June 6, 2014 in pre-scheduled schools with an added public performance at 10 a.m. May 3, 2014
· WHERE: B Street Theatre, 2711 B St., Sacramento, Calif.
· COST: Public Performance - Free
· MORE INFORMATION: www.bstreettheatre.org/school-tours | (916) 442-5635 (Outreach/Education office)