Cannibalism is one of those things that society tends to look down on. Considered one of the larger taboos, the consumption of another human being in reality is no laughing matter. However, “The Donner Party Kidz!” is not reality. While the show is based on an actual historical situation, the real Donner Clan did not have a talking horse nor did they sing along to children’s tunes. It’s within this absurdity that such a gruesome topic can become funny.
Produced by the Future Waitstaff of America (FWA), Vassar’s musical theatre student group, and No Offense, one of Vassar’s sketch comedy groups, “The Donner Party Kidz!” will be going up in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater Thursday, Feb. 18 and 19 at 9 p.m. and Saturday Feb. 20 at 6 and 8 p.m. The show is an original musical comedy by Collin Knopp-Schwyn ’16, who is also directing the production. An inaccurate retelling of the Donner Clan’s trek westward, this show presents itself in the form of a children’s show, with songs put to familiar kids music like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.”
Knopp-Schwyn originally wrote this musical five years ago along with several other play scripts that dealt with bizarre historical events. The basis of the show drew directly from “Barney & Friends” and other 1990s children’s shows. Juxtaposing the cheerful optimism of those shows with the grim Donner Party venture, the show is a parody of both simultaneously.
Since writing it a couple years ago, Knopp- Schwyn has made a few changes to his musical, He [Full Disclosure: Knopp-Schwyn is a crossword editor for the Miscellany News] explained, “‘The Donner Party Kidz!’ was first produced at the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival so this is actually the show’s second presentation. I’ve done some significant edits since then (including writing a new song) but the fascinating part of the process has been seeing a measure of personal growth as a theatermaker since the show’s first production and today. I have seven monumentally talented actor-singer-comedians and three amazing musicians as well as a full production team surrounding me on this project which is so much more than I had the last time we played this show.”
The Donner Party, in which this show lays its origins, was a group of American pioneers in the 1840s who made the trek to California by wagon. Through some very misguided planning and unfortunate weather, the clan ended up getting stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. One thing led to another, and eventually some of the members relied on cannibalism to survive. By the time they made it to California, a little more than half of the group survived, the rest dead from malnourishment, the cold and their companions’ desperate hunger. Despite the thousands of other clans that travelled to California, the Donners’ horribly unique story has earned them a degree of noteriety in the national imagination.
Because this is a special event, the rehearsal time has been far more truncated than the average production. One of the Donner kids, Patrick Dunning ’16, who plays Lyall Larson, clarified what the rehearsal process has been like: “Rehearsals have been going in a pretty standard way, given how much time the process has been on the whole. We had an initial reading of it once it was cast at the very end of last semester, but since coming back it’s been about two weeks of rehearsing about 4 or 5 times per week, and this week we begin tech in the Shiva. What’s been cool is that we’ve had at least one of our three awesome musicians with us at just about every rehearsal.”
While there is a solid historical basis for this show, it should not be considered biographical. None of the characters were actually part of the Donner Party. All of the characters are children too, which didn’t entirely make up the historical group. But, existing in the world of comedy, these and other discrepancies aren’t too important. The way this show is designed allows for anyone to enjoy it, regardless of how familiar they are with the historical facts.
One of the components that draws greatly from the reality in this show is a talking horse named Buckwheat played by Sarah Zimmerman ’16. She described the experience of taking on such a bizarre role and being in such a unique production. “Playing a talking horse is definitely one of the kookier roles I’ve had the privilege of playing,” Zimmerman said. “I get to wear a horse head, so that’s a plus. Collin is a great director because he’s open to suggestions from the actors and allows us to make a lot of choices on our own. He’s brought a lot of the democratic style of No Offense rehearsals into this show, and I think that’s served us well because of our talented cast.”
The mixed cast includes both actors who don’t have much sketch comedy and comedians who have never done student theatre. Falling into the former category, Dunning stated, “Speaking from the perspective of an actor working on it from the inside, it often times feels like the moment-to-moment silliness of the characters and their relationships with each other, rather than any cutting-edge historical message or criticism, are what really drive this show and make it a blast to be a part of, and hopefully a blast to see.”
The show features collaboration between theatre and comedy groups that for the most part has been unprecedented. While there are members of No Offense in the show, there are others who do not come from the comedy groups either. “The Donner Party Kidz!,” which is like an hour-long musical sketch, gives an opportunity for both sides of this coin to experience a new adventure in the world of theatre and comedy making.
Discussing what he believes audiences can enjoy about this show, Knopp-Schwyn remarked, “I want this show to be blatantly silly and fun and sing-alongable. A lot of theater here attempts to tackle things. This show does not. It is a goofy and inaccurate retelling of a piece of dark American lore; it has kids singing about manifest destiny and falling in love and also there’s a singing horse. That’s how I hope audiences see the show.”