Frog & Peach Theatre: Interview with Director Lynnea Benson

Frog & Peach Theatre
Frog & Peach Theatre creates frantic, crazed, and utterly hysterical short-form plays produced online and off based on fairy tale characters.

Princesses with anger management issues, gender-fluid step-mothers in blue wigs, less-than-dashing princes, sharp-talking dwarves, and puppets with attitudes are all present in the frantic, crazed, and utterly hysterical short-form plays produced on YouTube courtesy of Frog & Peach Theatre.

Founded by members of New York’s The Actors Studio, Frog & Peach Theatre first embraced twisted versions of classic tales in 2009, amid a world-wide financial meltdown, when they kickstarted their matinee program called “Tinkerbell Theatre.” This series consisted of 25-30-minute-long musical fairy tales that were performed by both humans and puppets. At the end of each show, the performers staged a puppet making workshop. In 2020, Tinkerbell Theatre adapted to the pandemic by going online and diving head-first into fairy tale land…with even zanier, slyly grown-up, and delightfully darker takes on the classics.

Although their fairy tale episodes are incredibly amusing, it is not what Frog & Peach Theatre is primarily known for. Pre-pandemic, the company was renowned for their fast-paced, entertaining productions of Shakespeare’s plays that were designed to appeal to modern audiences (whilst still staying true to the text), especially those who might typically lack the income to purchase theater tickets.

Frog & Peach TheatreActors with Frog & Peach Theatre are not afraid to break the fourth wall and speak, flirt, conspire with, and occasionally scold audience members. All in all, the ensemble consists of about 140 performers, designers, and staff. Recently, Lynnea Benson—who has held the position of Executive Director since 2001, discussed the theater, its mission, and her hopes for its future via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for storytelling and why do you gravitate towards the theater?

Lynnea Benson (LB): Even as a little kid, it seemed a lot of what I was taught at home, in school, and at church was just demonstrably not true. Worse, it was often delivered with a wink of “just play along, and you’ll be fine.” Nobody was happy when I learned the word “hypocrisy.” Reading and storytelling seemed a sneaky way to resist the BS of the world. When a kind librarian turned me on to Shakespeare, I thought, “Well! Now we’re getting somewhere!” It wasn’t just that the words were so beautiful. It was that the characters said things that seemed dangerously subversive. I’d never heard grown-ups flat-out say things like that. Having a friend like Shakespeare, someone I could quietly smirk with, made life a lot more bearable and a lot more fun.

MM: Why did you decide to launch with Shakespeare and how did you go about establishing yourselves?

LB: Growing up, there weren’t many options to see Shakespeare performed live—in fact, I was acting in Shakespeare productions before I’d ever seen one. When I came to New York, I saw as many productions as I could. I felt that the plays could be both nourishing and entertaining for regular working people, and that New York would be the place to see that realized. But it was frustrating. Some productions were very good, but many seemed deliberately unnatural and opaque; almost ceremonial. Meanwhile, I met this guy, Ted Zurkowski. We’d brought the same books to New York: The Collected Works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, & William Shakespeare. We were just kids, really, but Ted was already very accomplished as an actor, and a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio. And like me, he just never got tired of working. From the get-go, we often talked about how weird it was that so many friends and colleagues viewed

Frog & Peach TheatreShakespeare’s plays as impenetrable, and not the funny, explosive, dangerous stories that we found them to be. Work work work. Argue argue argue. Study study study. Big shows, little shows, big movies, little movies. We lived and worked in Paris for a while.

Once we got back to New York, I auditioned the Actors Studio, and was made a Lifetime Member. At a First Folio workshop with Patrick Tucker, a light went on—what if we could start our own Shakespeare company, and perform the plays the way we always wanted to see them? With each play carefully crafted to elide confusing or repetitive language? With beautiful, natural acting from people who knew what they were doing? What if we took the Folio approach to heart, with the characters (at specific points in the action) breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, eye to eye, not just gazing at the back of the house? How hard could it be? After all, we planned our own wedding. And so, Frog & Peach was born. And the work REALLY started. We hired a publicist. We reached out to schools, neighbors, and public libraries. We got listed in some surprising places and earned stacks of wonderful reviews. Word spread fast (this was pre-internet, mind you), and soon we were doing two or three full productions a season with one of the most diverse audiences anywhere: from lifelong Shakespeare fans to those who’d never set foot in a theatre.

MM: Why did “The Twelfth Night” become so extremely popular?

LB: 2019’s Twelfth Night had a very skilled, funny cast, and the brilliant designer Asa Benally. It was only our third production downtown at The Sheen Center-a daring move after a long & fruitful residency on the Upper West Side, We’d already seen a startling increase in new audiences, AND they kept coming back for more. People seemed eager to see what we had to offer. Twelfth Night is frequently on high school and college reading lists as an introduction to Shakespeare, but for most students, the characters don’t always leap from the page. That might have something to do with the fact that whole classes booked early in the Twelfth Night run and might be a factor in the tremendous box office Twelfth Night enjoyed. Kids who came in skeptical about Shakespeare fell in love with the show, shared it on social media, and came back to see it again with friends and family.

MM: Your actors are known to mess with audience members, so what are some the most memorable reactions you’ve seen?

Frog & Peach TheatreLB: I don’t know that we mess with anybody! Some audience members love to engage, but if they prefer not to, we always move on. It is rather startling to have an attractive character suddenly ask you a sincere question, flirt with you, or try to talk you into doing something rash.

Breaking the fourth wall creates astonishing moments on both sides of the footlights. It’s addictive. Not every actor can do it. But I think it’s part of the reason audiences feel so connected and at home with Frog & Peach and the way we perform Shakespeare. Of course, every performer has a favorite audience member story, but I’d say Titus Andronicus marked a seismic change for me as a director. Titus enjoyed full houses and knock-out reviews. We had the wonderful Greg Mullavey in the title role, Amy Quint as Tamora, Vivien Landau as Titus’ powerful sister Marta, and Jonathan Reed Wexler as Demetrius. There were gasps from the audience throughout. Long, astonished, gratifying curtain calls. But when the lights came up, people often needed to sit for several minutes, just to recover. Long time audience members gave me looks like I was some kind of monster. Titus upset a lot of people, and I had to learn to accept that. About midway through the run, I realized it wasn’t because of the horrific violence. It was the way we made horror seem reasonable. That, I could live with. At closing, one nice lady told me I was going straight to hell, and I thanked her profusely.

MM: What inspired you to start the “Tinkerbell” series and was the life show as hecticly-darkly-hilarious as the YouTube version?

LB: We launched Tinkerbell in 2009, when New York was at a very low point. If the worldwide financial crisis was before your time, be glad you missed it. It was rough. Not as rough as now, but it was the worst I’d ever been through at the time. Arts organizations with far more resources than Frog & Peach were selling off costumes and closing forever. We were still in our first season at a new (and for us, very pricey) venue. And while our Shakespeare program often gets kids age 9 or 10, we’d been asked for years to offer something for little ones. The time seemed ripe for a fun kids’ program that families could actually afford.  A lot of children’s theatre is prohibitively expensive for working people. The content is often very sweet and predictable-more for well-meaning, protective parents than for actual kids. The child development experts we consulted pointed out that little ones often crave exciting stories with self-reliant heroes, high stakes situations, and scary villains. Fairy tales seemed to fit the bill. We stuck to the rather savage original plot lines instead of the defanged pop culture versions. Above all, we wanted Tinkerbell to be laugh out loud funny for everyone, regardless of age or background. I thought a lot about Mel Brooks, and then wrote the books for Cinderella, The Tinderbox, and a few other titles. Ted wrote the music and lyrics. Tinkerbell soon became a popular destination—not just for traditional families, but for special needs kids, group home residents, teenagers, college students, and general audiences unaccompanied by children. The diversity of the audience really surprised us. One smart intern called it The Pee-wee Herman effect. And yes, it’s every bit as fast and hectic on stage as it is in video form! I credit our brilliant video editor (and wonderful actor) Kyle Primack for bringing that nuttiness to the small screen.

Frog & Peach TheatreMM: Although the pandemic ravaged the theater industry, you have produced a lot of zoom plays. Has that helped you stay sane?

LB: While I’m sure the online programming has been beneficial to the mental health of our performers and staff, our main focus is to serve the public. In March 2020, we knew we’d have to postpone a long-awaited production of As You Like It (scheduled to open at The Sheen Center April 2020) and the carefully planned Tink On Tour (June-July 2020). We cried. Knowing the uncertainty that every New Yorker was facing made it that much worse. We started by reaching out to mental health professionals and public health historians for advice on how we could best use our resources to relieve the isolation & uncertainty of pandemic life as best we could for as many people as we could. We raided our storage space for props, puppets, wigs, and prosthetics; costume pieces like crowns, hats, collars, antlers —anything that would help tell stories on zoom.

MM: How did you develop the characters…aka how do you decide which issues to give to each one?

LB: Like Shakespeare’s plays, the original tales are often different from many modern, sanitized versions most people remember. The protagonists are proactive and wily, and the villains often receive absurdly grotesque comeuppances. And like Shakespeare, we felt the heroines, especially, merited lives far beyond the Nice Girl template. For example, Snow White’s (Alyssa Diamond) terrible temper and Cinderella’s (Claire Elise Walton) refusal to suffer in silence ring true to the women we know, and better suit Alyssa & Claire’s enormous comedic gifts. In writing these episodes, it helps that I’ve worked with many of our performers for years. For example, Julia (Red Riding Hood’s Nana) & Jeffrey (aka The Big Bad Wolf) were written specifically for Vivien Landau & Jonathan Reed Wexler. Both are wonderfully compelling in dramatic or romantic leads, but their skills with comedy are just phenomenal. And they’ve played romantic partners before! It’s no surprise that Amy Frances Quint as The Evil Queen & Kevin Hauver as the Magic Mirror who loves her is one of our most successful pairings ever. Amy & Kevin played Maria & Sir Toby in our 2019 Twelfth Night, and audiences can’t get enough of those two.

MM: What other fairy tale creatures might you explore the lives of soon?

Frog & Peach TheatreLB: Audiences can look forward to Ty-Quan Payne as beleaguered family therapist Dr Beary Gordy, Vivien Landau as Children’s Casting Agent Barbra Yaga, and of course, an up close & personal interview with King Austin of Fairyland (played by Austin Pendleton), along with poorly organized unicorns, belligerent fairies, and irate talking pigs.

MM: You also make a lot of puppets which are used in your plays. What is it about puppets that is so appealing?

LB: As with theatrical masks, or any role really, puppets let you say and do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get away with. Children and actors understand this immediately.

MM: You used to make puppets in front of the audience after a show, what was their what was their reaction to that process like?

LB: Actually, each kid gets a free puppet making kit with a fuzzy neon colored sock, eyes, craft foam, bangles, and enough little doodads to make a pirate puppet, dinosaur puppet, princess puppet–whatever the artist wants to make. We made them together, right on stage. I miss it terribly. There are two things everyone should know, but especially kids.

  1. You don’t need a lot of money or a closet full of diplomas to make a thrilling show, as I learned from my first backyard production (an all cat version of Jane Eyre).
  2. You can make mistakes in arithmetic. You can make mistakes in spelling. But you can’t make mistakes in art. Maybe nothing will turn out exactly as you planned it, but mistakes just don’t exist.

MM: What do you hope viewers get from your work?

LB: I want them to know that they are loved and missed and terribly important. I want them to know that come hell or high water, we will serve them. Above all, I want them to laugh.

MM: After the pandemic ends, what sort of work are you most looking forward to staging?

LB: AS YOU LIKE IT! We’re confident that we’ll be able to reassemble most of the gorgeous cast, and I can’t wait to resume rehearsals. The music, the people, the language…we are going to come out swinging and ready for love.

Frog & Peach TheatreMM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

LB: In addition to As You Like It, we’ve been in Zoom rehearsals for a wonderful new play called Verbatim since November. Verbatim stars Academy Award Winner Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, and some terrific performers from our ensemble. In the meantime, there are a lot of little things our friends and supporters can do right now to make sure that Frog & Peach keeps thriving. A monthly donation of just $2 or more goes a long way to keep us healthy, and ready to hit the ground running. Subscribing to our YouTube channel is FREE and would also make a HUGE difference to us. It shows our sponsors that we’re here for whatever happens, and that we’re fiercely committed to serving our city. Frog & Peach has been right there with New York City through natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and financial crises. This town has stuck by us, and we intend to stick by this town and its beautiful, tough citizens, for as long as they need us.

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To learn more about Frog & Peach Theatre, visit their official website, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

*Photos courtesy of Maria Baranova.