Lambs walk the boards at Philly theater

By SUSAN EMERSON NUTTER

Contributing writer

PHILADELPHIA — While the great comedian W.C. Fields warned, “Never work with children or animals,” the actors performing in the Wilma Theater’s production of Sam Shephard’s The Curse of the Starving Class (open now through April 8) would beg to differ.

Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater has teamed up with a Roxborough 4-H club to bring a bit of the barnyard to the “boards.” Three bottle-fed lambs have been “hired” to add some realism to the Wilma Theater’s March production, and the theater-going community couldn’t be more excited.

Home farm

The Philadelphia Manatawna/Saul 4-H club has loaned out three lambs to The Wilma Theater. The purebred Southdown lambs were born at the J&B Miller Farm in Clinton, Pa., and came to Philadelphia with the help of Gary Kwisnek, another prominent Southdown breeder.

Both Joe Miller and Kwisnek are Farm and Dairy subscribers. Kwisnek, a director with the American Southdown Breeders Association who owns Scenic View Farm, Clarksburg, Pa., Indiana County, was contacted by the Manatawna/Saul 4-H club in mid- February in an effort to find a bottle-fed lamb for the Wilma Theater production.

Turns out, the club acquired three lambs for the play. At the time Kwisnek’s ewes had not lambed yet, so he contacted Miller who ended up providing the trio. Kwisnek said Miller, “doesn’t usually mess with bottle feeding lambs, but he did with this set of three for some reason.”

Two of the lambs were from a set of triplets (the ewe didn’t take all three of them) and the other was a twin where the ewe didn’t take both of them. It was decided since lambs are herding animals, the production would benefit from having three lambs on hand as opposed to just one.

Also, only one lamb is on stage at a time, so if a lamb was having a bad day, there would be another to step in when it was show time — not unlike Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, twins who starred in the ’80s sitcom Full House.

Happy family

Kwisnek states when he went to pick up the lambs, the three were in Miller’s basement cuddling and at times, playing with an old yellow dog. All are very personable, but like many child actors, one of the lambs has turned out to be a ham. Kwisnek put the three in a box in the backseat of his pickup and “before we got on the Expressway, one (whose official breeder’s name is J&B 1062) had got out of the box and was up on the back seat,” Kwisnek said. “She is kind of a ringleader.”

Turns out taking on live lambs for The Curse of the Starving Class was the one of the best ideas the Wilma Theater has had. Not only have the lambs brought the theater publicity, the community has taken an interest in these three young ladies as well.

“We turned to social media and through a contest on Facebook and Twitter, the lambs now have new names,” said Johnny Van Heest, public relations manager at The Wilma Theater. The lambs’ new names are Justin Sheeper, Lady BahBah, and the ring-leader; the lamb who spends the most time on stage, is known as Bahnka Zizbah; named for the theater’s artistic director, Blanka Zizka.

4-H is also benefitting from the exposure. Since the lambs will live at the theater throughout the play’s run, the community is watching closely how the lambs are treated and are seeing the positive impact 4-H has on the area’s youth. Scott Moser, supervisor of the Manatawna/Saul 4-H club, states, “The club students have instructed the Wilma crew on how to create a comfortable and healthy living environment for the lambs.”

The group inspected the space where the lambs would live before they arrived and created the area that the lambs are being housed in using fence pieces to build a pen.

“We’re giving our oversight,” said Moser, “and one of our members has volunteered to visit and check on the lambs two to three times each week.”

Club details

The Manatawna/Saul 4-H club club raises livestock on the Manatawna Farm in Roxborough and currently owns an array of sheep, yews, rams, steers and cows. They operate through a cooperative agreement with W.B. Saul High School, a school that focuses on agricultural education.

These lambs are registered with the Southdown breed association to individual 4-H’ers in the club and will be project animals (once the play closes in April) for those individuals for the next two years. At that time, they will go into production for the club and hopefully their genetics will improve the quality of the club’s flock.

The Wilma Theater is also doing their part to make sure these tiny actors receive the best of care during the run of the play. The theater has done research regarding the care and feeding of the lambs and has obtained the necessary permit from the city of Philadelphia and certification from a veterinarian.

“We have even hired a sheep wrangler as part of the stage crew,” said Van Heest. Elliot Greer is in charge of caring for the lambs and feeds the trio a combination of warm water and powdered-milk substitute from a soda bottle every six to eight hours.

Greer is also in charge of cleaning their pen and letting the lambs run around the stage during off hours for exercise. And what a stage. Not only is it expansive, but there are fake mountains in the background the lambs love to climb and find especially entertaining.

This is the first time Wilma has done a show with farm animals, at least since Clayton Tejada joined the company in 2004 as its production manager.

“This is a little out of our realm of expertise,” he said with a chuckle.

Rehearsal

According to Tejada, all three lambs rehearsed together on the stage until they felt comfortable in the new environment. They were then slowly separated until each had taken a turn acting on stage individually. The actors also spent time with the lambs outside rehearsal to foster a bond and decrease the infants’ stage fright.

“No, I never have performed with live animals before,” said actor Nate Miller, in the role of Wesley. “But I’m an animal lover. I’m from Wisconsin. I’ve spent a lot of time with animals on farms.”

And while the actors might be able to prepare for their roles, “What the lambs might do once performance begins is a wild card,” Tejada said.

The crew might not be prepared if the lambs become frightened and jump on stage, said Van Heest. “But they are prepared for bleating, urinating and defecating.”

The play, starring and written by award-winning playwright Sam Shepard (Buried Child, True West), is a dark comedy about a family facing financial ruin in pre-suburban California. With their farm being threatened by debt collectors, the family must find a way to defeat the “curse” and save their farm.

Aromatic affair

Besides the expected, natural, elimination activity from the lambs, during one of the scenes an actor will also be urinating. Add to that the aroma of eggs and bacon cooking on a functioning stove during another scene and the result is what Van Heest calls “full sensory theater.”

“It’ll be a smelly show,” Tejada added. “It’s a very Wilma thing to do.”

And thanks to the antics of Bahnka Zizbah, and her understudies, The Curse of the Starving Class will be a performance the people of Philadelphia won’t soon forget.

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