Wilma Theater hires three wild and woolly little actors

The Wilma Theater has teamed up with a Roxborough 4-H Club to recruit actors - small woolly ones, to be precise - for its production of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class.

A cool breeze blew in late last week as members of both the theater company and the Manatawna/Saul 4-H Club prepared the loading dock for the three two-week-old Southdown lambs that will be in the show. The members opened up the dock and, on a large piece of black tarp, built a tall, makeshift wire enclosure. They sprinkled straw on the ground and set up small space heaters around the area to keep the lambs warm. The last touches were hanging a low light over a beam and putting an orange ball in the corner for the lambs to play with.

Even before the lambs were brought into their temporary home, their bleating could be heard from the van, parked outside in an alley just off South Broad Street.

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.

Wilma is leasing the lambs from W.B. Saul High School's farm in Roxborough. The high school has a cooperative relationship with the 4-H Club, which owns the lambs, said club president Scott Moser.

Originally, the company was planning to use only one lamb for the production. But Tejada felt the lambs might benefit from being in a group, since they are social animals. So when the breeder offered to send two companions, Tejada agreed. Having two at a time backstage, he said he hopes, will minimize offstage noise.

Elliot Greer, stage hand and honorary sheep wrangler, is in charge of caring for the lambs. Although there is no set care routine, the lambs will be fed a combination of warm water and powdered-milk substitute from a soda bottle every six to eight hours. Greer will also be in charge of cleaning the pen once a week and letting the lambs run around the stage during off hours for exercise.

Tejada said he doubted that the lambs would be allowed outside. "They will eat anything and everything," he said, adding that several varieties of grass in Philadelphia could make them sick.

But the stage is expansive, and Tejada said he expected they would enjoy playing on the fake mountains in the background.

For the audience, Wilma public relations manager Johnny Van Heest said, productions on this stage are a "voyeuristic experience," since the surrounding walls are low enough that theatergoers are always conscious they are watching a play. For the lambs, it's a playground that inclines stage left.

It is crucial that the lambs be watched closely, Moser said, because they are infants and susceptible to illness.

Another challenge of having live animals: They might misbehave. If they do, and steal the show, Moser said, it is up to the actor to regain the audience's attention.

For performances, from March 7 through April 8, Tejada plans on rotating the lambs. If one takes better to the stage than the others, she might become the star performer.

Only one lamb appears on stage.

"It's kind of a Mary Kate and Ashley situation," said Van Heest.

The lambs will be sharing not only a role, but also a name. The theater company is holding a competition on Twitter and Facebook to name the lambs. The participant who submits the most creative name will win free tickets to the show. According to Van Heest, this has been the company's most successful social media contest. The lambs will have a name before the play opens.

Director Richard Hamburger introduced the play to the company. He fell in love with Curse of the Starving Class after teaching it to his class at Manhattanville College. When he introduced it to Wilma's artistic director, who also liked the play, Hamburger was hired to direct.

The play, a dark comedy about a financially ruined farm family in pre-suburban California, has received critical claim since its 1977 London debut.

It will take several days for the lambs to acclimate to the stage, Mosor said, and to being separated from each other. The plan, according to Tejada, is to rehearse all three lambs on the stage, then slowly separate them until each has had a turn acting individually.

Greer also anticipates that having audience members close to the lamb on stage, responding to the animal, will encourage the creature to behave.

The actors will be spending 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 Nate Miller, in the role of Wesley. "It's my first time being naked on stage as well. But I'm an animal lover. I'm from Wisconsin. I've spent a lot of time with animals on farms."

The lambs are "supercute," Miller said, "and really friendly, easy to work with. ... It's a really cool experience to work with them."

What the lambs might do once performance begins is a wild card, Tejada said.

"They haven't had much training in the performing arts," Moser said. And since they are too young for solid food, he said, they can't be fed on stage.

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

"Fortunately, it's a messy play," he said, suggesting that none of the "stuff on stage" juxtaposes correctly.

"It'll be a smelly show," Tejada said.

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 you have what Van Heest calls "full sensory theater."

"It's a very Wilma thing to do," he said.

When the play ends in April, the lambs will be returned to 4-H and grow up as veterans of the Philadelphia theater scene.