By Ginny Cooper
Sometimes when two people collaborate, the result is magical.
That’s what happened when Mountain Brook residents Jean Pierce and Betty Pewitt teamed up to write a holiday musical for Birmingham Children’s Theatre.
The women’s play, “Santa’s Adventure in the Merrywood Mega Mall,” returns to the BCT’s Wee Folks Theatre on Nov. 24 with a tale about the excitement and magic of the holiday season. And when longtime friends and playwrights Jean Pierce and Betty Pewitt put their heads together, holiday magic happens.
Pierce and Pewitt had been co-writing for almost a decade when Jim Rye, who was the artistic director of the BCT at that time, approached them with a request for a Christmas play. He gave them a title, “Santa’s Adventure,” and scheduled the production for the upcoming season.
“He went ahead and put it on the program,” Pruitt said. “‘Santa’s Adventure,’ period. Then we had to come up with an adventure. So we put our heads together and started thinking: What kind of adventure could Santa possibly have?”
The duo wanted to create a modern-day holiday story and so came up with the setting of a mall.
“We wanted to make it modern, and we knew malls were a central part of the modern Christmas, so we decided that Santa would get locked in the mall and maybe couldn’t make it around the world,” Pierce said.
In the play, Santa loses track of time and gets trapped in the gigantic Merrywood Mega Mall. When he can’t get out, he becomes worried that he won’t make it out in time to deliver presents to all of the good little girls and boys around the world.
Shenanigans ensue as the only other people left in the mall–a ditzy giftwrap girl and a maintenance man, appropriately named Mr. Broom–attempt to help Santa escape.
The play is designed for children ages 2-6. Pierce and Pruitt said they carefully considered the age of their audience when they were crafting the Christmas tale.
“We have a wonderful composer, Jay Tuminello, who writes all of the music for the shows,” Pierce said. “Every show is a musical, so that helps the children stay involved.”
In addition, every show is 45 minutes to an hour, with no intermission because, as Pewitt pointed out, “Once one child has to go to the restroom, then they all want to go to the restroom.”
The script for “Santa’s Adventure in the Merrywood Mega Mall” has remained the same since its debut in 1991, but Pierce and Pewitt are looking forward to seeing the play again this year under new director Will Harrell.
The women’s friendship goes back more than 60 years, but they have been writing plays together for only about half that time.
Pierce and Pewitt met when both were students at Birmingham-Southern College.
Pierce, who studied theater at Birmingham-Southern and did graduate work at the University of Utah, said she has worked as both an actress and director with almost every theater in town, including Town and Gown, Festival Theatre and Terrific New Theatre.
“But of all of those, I prefer being here at BCT,” she said.
Pierce has been involved with Birmingham Children’s Theatre for more than 40 years, since it was a production of the Junior League.
The theater is now the resident professional theater company of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, where it operates the 150-seat Dominick Studio Theatre, the 250-seat Wee Folks Theatre and the 950-seat Mainstage Theatre.
Pierce had been involved with BCT for many years when Pewitt returned to Birmingham after following her husband, a career U.S. Air Force officer, around the world for more than 20 years. Pierce was quick to suggest that Pruitt get involved with the theater.
“When I moved back, Jean said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t you like to volunteer at Children’s Theatre?'” Pewitt said, laughing. The Birmingham Children’s Theater was, at the time, completely dependent on volunteers, she said.
Pewitt soon became very involved, despite having little previous experience.
“I’ve always loved the theater, but I am in no way trained,” she said.
The two women were on a play committee together, responsible for selecting the plays to be performed each season. They found it difficult to find scripts both “appropriate and timely,” Pewitt said, so they agreed to write their own.
The women turned out to have a knack for the art. Their first play, “Backstage Baby,” ended up playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., after the Director of Programs for Youth saw the show on a visit to Birmingham and booked it for a three-day stint at the prestigious theater.
“We were part lucky–I don’t know, maybe we were smarter than we thought,” Pierce said.
Together, the two women have written six plays for BCT as well as numerous plays for UAB’s touring theatre, Bookends, a program designed to promote literacy.
Wee Folks Theatre is actually named the Jean Prescott Pierce Wee Folks Theatre as a tribute to the hard work and support Pierce has given to the theater over the years, said Russ Hobbie, BCT’s marketing manager.
“The Wee Folks Theatre was named for Jean a while ago for all the work that she has done here. She’s written more than 40 plays for BCT as well as directing them and acting in them, and so she was honored with this plaque,” Hobbie said.
The plaque is not by the front entrance as most might expect.
“This is where the actors sneak back, and they come through here to the stage, so actors are the only ones who see this. People come, and they don’t know that this is the Jean Prescott Pierce Wee Folks Theatre, it’s just the Wee Folks Theatre. That’s just a nod to the type of person that she is and to her incredible character,” Hobbie said.
Pierce and Pewitt said the best part of co-writing plays is working together.
“We work pretty well as a team because we know each other. One of us would get stuck on a scene, and the other would say, ‘Oh, let’s do so-and-so,’ and it would just come together,” Pewitt said.
Pierce said she and Pewitt are like-minded in a lot of ways, which helps the creative process.
“We kind of think alike anyway, at least as far as taste and appropriateness, and we just go from there,” Pierce said.
Pierce said she loves to watch the children in the audience really embrace the plays she and Pewitt have written.
“It’s so rewarding to see the children connect with the story,” she said.
And while both women said they want their plays to be entertaining, they said they strive to make them meaningful as well.
“We’re very preachy, but we hope it’s without seeming preachy. That’s the thing, because if you put it in a humorous context, you can get a lot of messages across,” Pewitt said.
Their version of the classic story “Rumpelstiltskin” is an example of this theory at work. In the play, Rumpelstiltskin is no longer the purely-evil imp who ends up ripping himself in two but instead is just a lonely, ill-behaved misfit.
“The children could identify with this mean little person, always having temper fits, and we hope that it would make them think, ‘I don’t want to be like that,'” Pierce said.
The two women said they thought of their children and grandchildren as they crafted their plays. Both have children, grandchildren–and in Pierce’s case, great-grandchildren–who grew up watching the plays.
“Sometimes my grandson, who is a lawyer, comes to see my plays, and I get really nervous,” Pierce said. “But he says, ‘Grandma, you haven’t lost your touch.'”
Both women said they couldn’t get a better review than that.
Pewitt and Pierce said they hope their play will help other families in the Over the Mountain and Birmingham metro area focus on the fun and magic of the holiday season–and on what’s really important.
“We have a large extended family that all lives here, and getting together with them is the main thing,” Pruitt said.
The really magical part of Christmas, the women said, is family.
“Christmas (is about) family,” Pierce said.
Santa’s Adventure in the Merrywood Mega Mall premieres for the 2013 season on Nov. 24 with School Day Performances Nov. 24-Dec. 20 at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Family Day Performances will be on Dec. 7 and 14 at 10 a.m. and noon and on Dec. 8 and 15 at 2 p.m. Home School Performance Day is Dec. 5.
General admission tickets are $9 for children and $11 for adults. For more information, visit www.bct123.org or call 458-8181.