Young Actors Fly High

Malibu High School student actress Ava Ray (left) in a still shot from this year’s spring musical, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” based on the popular children’s book

Mention the children’s book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” to any kid and they’ll likely know it instantly. At least, that’s what happened at Malibu High School when 20-year theater arts director Jodi Plaia announced that the high school would be doing the musical version of the lighthearted children’s tale for this year’s spring production.

Last autumn, the theater performed a show called “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms,” where the actors and actresses had made innovative use of Zoom backgrounds and filters. But this spring, Plaia had wanted to up the ante. 

“[She Kills Monsters] was the first attempt. Here we are again, and I’m going, ‘I don’t want to do the same thing. How do we challenge this?’” she asked herself. 

Plaia spoke with the publishing house and found that the school’s options were limited to around 20 plays due to legal complications having to do with streaming online versus performing live. Out of those, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The Musical” was a clear winner among her students. 

“All the kids freaked out about ‘Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus’ because they had all read it as kids,” she said. The award-winning book written by Mo Willems was published in 2003.

The musical, which expands upon the storybook’s original plot, follows a pigeon who is searching for her purpose in life. Ava Ray, an MHS senior who played the titular role, described her character as “lost in the world.” She added that playing the pigeon was tough on her voice, because the pigeon speaks in a higher-pitched voice than her natural tone.

“It’s set in some sort of fantasyland, given that the pigeon can talk and the bus has a face,” MHS senior Caden Stockwell, who played both the Bus Engine and the Hot Dog Vendor, said. His lines were often things such as “honk” and “vroom vroom,” he added.

In this fantasy world, the pigeon comes across a bus and wants desperately to drive it, but is told she cannot because it’s not her “thing.” The play’s resolution features the bus driver teaching the pigeon to fly, which the pigeon finally discovers is “the one thing that makes me the me-st me,” as the character says in the show. 

“The whole point is teaching kids to find what makes you, you,” Plaia said. She described the play as “really sweet—a very endearing, fun story that kids can really relate to.”

The students rehearsed over Zoom video calls from home. Then, when campus opened up, the group utilized a green screen to record multiple different takes of scenes and then mashed them together in editing during post-production. Though students were all in the same room during recording—the room where the green screen is at MHS is very large—they never stood next to each other and instead looked at the spots where their castmates would have been.

“If there were three people in the scene, we had to do the scene a minimum of three times and then line all that dialogue up in post [production],” said Plaia, whose husband is a videographer and graphic designer; his editing skills were key in creating the final product. 

Along with its plot, the show draws its aesthetic from the original children’s book. 

“We decided we could make it look like an animated children’s cartoon, like ‘Blue’s Clues,’” Plaia said, describing the stylized, whimsical design. Stockwell’s face, for example, was green screened onto the bus; the senior had to wear a full-body green morph suit to get the effect. 

Plaia and two of the play’s actors visited Webster Elementary for a lunchtime meet and greet one week before the musical’s premiere. The children loved it, Plaia said, with many of them recognizing the characters from the book.

The actual performances (streamed via Zoom) were also successes—and some special guests even attended. One of the play’s co-writers, who goes by the name of Mr. Warburton, and one of the play’s composers, named Deborah Wicks La Puma, showed up to watch and stuck around for the virtual Q&A afterwards to Plaia and the cast’s surprise. 

The total production, which ran for around 45 minutes, involved a cast of nine, a crew of two and an orchestra of 30 students, Plaia said. 

Ray and Stockwell, Plaia’s students, praised her work on the play, too. 

“Going into this year, I didn’t think I would get to do anything at all,” Ray said. “The fact that [Plaia] was able to put this together is something I’m so grateful for.”