Originally Posted Online: April 24, 2013, 12:35 pm
Last Updated: April 25, 2013, 3:00 pm

Junior Theatre pushes boundaries in 'Jungle Book'

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Naomi Hains tries on a mask for "The Jungle Book" at Davenport Junior Theatre.
Monkey masks get painted for "The Jungle Book."

Davenport Junior Theatre is pushing the artistic envelope with its latest production, an adaptation of the classic "The Jungle Book," by Rudyard Kipling.

The theater -- which is run "for kids, by kids" -- has collaborated with professional artists in making unique masks for the play's characters.

"This is the first time in 61 years we are doing a full mask production of this caliber," said DJT president Kristin Meyer. "Not only have we expanded in the last few years to hire professionals in costume, lighting, sound, props and scenic designs, our production of 'Jungle Book' features half-masks created by local artists."

The show begins in a late 19th-century boarding school where the young author of "The Jungle Book" is seeking inspiration for a writing assignment.Soon we are swept up into Kipling's imagination, as the adventure comes to life with characters like Mowgli the Man Cub, Shere Kahn the Tiger and Baloo the Bear.

The local artists recruited to build the 18 masks for this production were husband and wife duo Daniel and Jessica Sheridan. He is artistic director of DJT and performing arts supervisor for Davenport Parks and Recreation, and she is DJT instructor, director of "Jungle Book," owner of Shared Light Photography and the general manager of Midcoast Fine Arts.

Mr. Sheridan studied mask production at graduate school at the University of Connecticut.

"I have wanted to do a mask production with the kids for years now. It is such a magical experience for the actors and the audiences," he said. "We're finally pulling it off."

"It takes a tremendous amount of time," Ms. Sheridan added. "Each mask takes between 20 and 25 hours to complete. We converted our basement at home into a design studio. Needless to say, it gets messy."

The process involves sculpting a mask out of clay, making a plaster cast of the sculpture to create a negative, pouring in neoprene latex, letting it sit many hours, pouring out the neoprene, removing the mask, trimming it down to size, fitting it to the actor's face, adding straps and then painting.

"I think Daniel initially thought he could handle it all on his own," Ms. Sheridan said. "It's safe to say he couldn't have done it without me."

"Jessica is a far better painter and visual artist than I am," Mr. Sheridan said. "My strength is in structure and performance skills. Plus, she is the director. So it has been nice to work side by side with her to get exactly what she was looking for."

Not only have students been rehearsing the play itself, they also have undergone 20 hours of intensive mask training on the weekends, he said.

"Performing in mask is a skill the needs to be developed," Mr. Sheridan said. "The mask teaches us about poise, energy, precision and using the whole body to communicate."

"To do a show like this well is a tremendous challenge," Ms. Sheridan said. "But one thing I have learned about the kids at DJT, they are always up for a challenge."

DJT offers classes and camps year-round in theater and dance for students ages 3 to 18.

"The Jungle Book" will be performed Saturday (and May 4) at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., and Sunday (and May 5) at 2 p.m., at the theater, 2822 Eastern Ave., Davenport. Tickets for the hour-long show are $5 for anyone 3 years old or older.

For more information, call 563-326-7862 or visit DavenportJuniorTheatre.org.