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A tale of the Famine for NYC schoolchildren

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The story of “The Big Potato” begins at 8 a.m. on a street corner in Brooklyn with a Frenchman and his fiddle trying to hail a cab. Patrick Ourceau, from the Loire Valley, now living in New York, has been playing Irish music for 19 years. That morning he was on his way to join two other musicians and performers in St. Stanislaus primary school in Maspeth, Queens. They form a troupe that goes from school to school in the New York City area performing a rather unusual tale.

“The Big Potato” is the story of an old widow set in post-Famine Ireland, hardly, it might be thought, the kind of material for a school audience consisting of children from Kindergarten to eighth grade. But Orceau, along with actress-musician Laura Flynn, who is from Dublin, and MacDara Mac Uibh Aille, the Armagh-born actor and writer who is the main creator of “The Big Potato,” have utilized the ancient traditions of the pantomime and the Medieval mummers, using words, music, masks and mime, to bring some truths about the Famine into the New York school room in a way accessible to children.

“The Big Potato” is sponsored by the Irish Arts Center, which contributed $20,000 to its development. The story is loosely derived from the Famine curriculum adopted by the New York State Education Department. But those are just the dry facts. The marvel is turning those facts into a 90-minute show of music, dance, drama and comedy, involving up to 300 children as participants.

Mac Uibh Aille and Flynn are already in the school’s gymnasium, getting their props ready, when Orceau arrives. The props consist basically of three large osier masks (made from willow), a sun mask, old clothes, a cane, a tin bucket, a wig, and a squeaky rubber hammer. The masks, draped in ribbons, are based on those worn by mummers and come from the shores of Lough Neagh, where they are made by James Mulholland. Now in his 70s, Mulholland learned the craft from making osier baskets that were used to parachute supplies to Allied soldiers during World War II. For music, the troupe relies on a fiddle, two bodhrans and a tin whistle. Orceau warms up with a few bars of “The Thrush in the Storm,” and there are a few rolls on the bodhrans. Then they have a quick rehearsal as the three get ready in time for the schoolchildren to file in at 9:30 a.m. About 250 kids settle down on the floor, and after a few words of introduction from the head teacher (the show is to help build “an appreciation of where the Irish culture has come from”), “The Big Potato” begins. But not the way the audience might expect.

Mac Uibh Aille comes in chanting a song, going from high to low pitch.

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“A berri kiki tomba, la busa busa busa,” (phonetically written), goes one of the refrains, and soon the children have joined in, delighted with the funny sounding lyrics, which don’t make sense. After it is finished, and the children settle down again, he asks from where they think the song came. A forest of little arms in their white sleeved shirts shoot up, waving vigorously.

“Ireland,” a chorus calls out. Mac Uibh Aille shakes his head. A few try Italy, and France and Canada.

“No,” he shakes his head again. Then one child calls out “Africa.”

“Yes, it comes from Africa,” Mac Uibh Aille confirms. It was a song in Swahili, and he explains the reason he was beginning his Famine show with a song from Africa. Africa and Ireland are linked in history because of the role famine has played in their development. His brief introduction stresses a theme the performance reiterates about shared experience, and the importance of sharing (themes children grasp readily).

One more matter before the show can begin. The three performers have to train 250 children to act. But first things first. Mac Uibh Aille marks off an area in front of the seated children.

“In order to be an actor, you have to know where the stage is,” he tells them.

The next 40 minutes are devoted to training the children — all 250 of them — to take part in the performance, ensuring that everyone has a part and no one feels left out. Some are selected to take part in the ceili dancing at the end of the show, and are taught a few basic Irish dance steps; others are chosen as farm hands to help the Old Lady — the heroine of “The Big Potato” — to pull rocks from the soil; others volunteer to be diggers and sowers of seed, wielding an imaginary spade; some are picked to play The Blight, the show’s baddie, and one is selected to play the sun. All are taught to mime — to look as if they were carrying a heavy rock, or digging a field, or make the kind of nasty face that the evil Blight might be expected to display as he hovers over the widow’s potato patch. Most of the children take to it with gusto, for it is, after all, just playing. And children are good at that.

The show begins, with Mac Uibh Aille asking the audience members to close their eyes and imagine the sounds of silence and the sound the grass makes when its growing, transporting them to Ireland, circa 1850 “when the winds of hunger howled at every door . . . and all the potatoes went black.”

The plot is simple but profound. The Old Lady, played by Flynn in her white wig and cane, has lost per potatoes. Her Brother and his Wife, played by Mac Uibh Aille and Orceau in the huge osier masks, with their hideous beak-shaped noses, refuse greedily to share their food with her. The elements of the pantomime come into play. When Wife answers the door to the Old Lady’s knocking, she announces loudly: “My husband told me to tell you we’re not in.” The kids howl with laughter.

When Brother and Wife say no to Old Lady’s request for food, there are screams of disapproval from the children.

To get rid of his sister, Brother fobs her off with a piece of stony infertile ground. But she goes ahead, with the help of 15 industrious and grimacing school kids hauling rocks from the field, to clear it and plant seed. The black-clad Blight arrives like the devil in a Medieval miracle play, with the support of a dozen or so smaller Blighters, and tries to blight the widow’s patch as he swoops over it. But as in all morality plays, of which the pantomime is a direct descendant, Good triumphs over Evil — this time, thanks to the widow’s tin bucket, which she uses to drive off Blight and the little Blighters. Then, miraculously, the Old Lady discovers that her patch is indeed fertile, having produced a giant potato. There is a competition to see who is strong enough to haul it out of the field, with the children huffing and puffing, pulling imaginary ropes, until there is a victor. It is, of course, the smallest child there.

The Old Lady takes the huge spud to the King of the Fairies to share it with him, and there is enough left over to feed the rest of the country, including her greedy Brother and his Wife. The children are asked whether they approve of this last gesture, and after a moment’s hesitation, they scream their approval. The moral of the story is clear to all: it is good to share, it is bad to be greedy and selfish. The show ends with a house-warming party for the Old Lady’s new home (given to her by the King of the Fairies). A kind gesture leads to general happiness, expressed by dancing.

“The Big Potato” lasts a little more than 90 minutes all told (including rehearsing the children). But it proves that the old tradition of pantomime and mummers’ plays can still deliver true magic and delight (as well as instruct) modern children.

“And I learned a few things myself,” said Frank Grillo, a math teacher who watched the show. “The interaction with the students was terrific.”

The Troupe

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