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Love Makes It Real

Laguna Director Believes Imagination Will Bring to Life Its Low-Tech but Affectionate 'Velveteen Rabbit'


The Velveteen Rabbit has no batteries, no back legs and nearly 75 years of playtime under its belt, but the old boy's knack for jump-starting imaginations is still mighty impressive.

So says Joe Lauderdale, head of the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater and director of an upcoming stage version of "The Velveteen Rabbit," Margery Williams' classic children's story. Adapted by Phil Grecian, it starts the playhouse's 1996-97 children's season on Friday; performances will continue through Nov. 17 at the Moulton Theater.

"I'm always harping on imagination and creativity and how movies and television make it easy for us not to use" our creative powers, Lauderdale says. "I love this story because it shows so powerfully that anything can be real, if we use our imaginations."

He says he had to do some digging to find a "Velveteen Rabbit" that captured the innocence and playfulness of Williams' characters in a way modern audiences could embrace.

"A lot of what I saw tended to be rather silly and talked down to the audience." Although the story is suitable for young children, Lauderdale says, it offers messages that can benefit older viewers too--parents included.

"The toys do come to life, and they can be pretty funny, so the little ones like that. But there are abstract ideas here too, like the concept that love can make all things possible and that it's OK to be different.

"Actually, that's one of the key points in the story. The rabbit is different from the other toys, so at first, they don't accept him. It takes the skin horse to convince them, and him, that it's OK to be an individual."

Lauderdale considers "The Velveteen Rabbit" to be one of the first significant children's books to look at the world through a toy's eyes, a format he says is especially empowering for young audiences.

"The little boy in the story is rather lonely," he explains. "He makes the toys his playmates. . . . He loves them; he makes them real, and he gives each of them a unique personality."

To maintain the story's simple appeal and to keep the focus on the characters, Lauderdale has steered away from excessive visuals or splashy special effects. Occasionally, doors and windows will fly open seemingly on their own, and a red light and eerie sound effect grow in intensity. But Lauderdale says most the the play's effect comes via an old-fashioned blend of imagination and inventiveness, much the same way a child at play would create his own made-up world.

"We're trying to keep that sense of innocence," he says. "I think all of us feel that slipping away.

(The children's season will continue with an adaptation of E.B. White's "The Adventures of Stuart Little" [Feb. 7-16]; a version of "Little Women" co-written by Lauderdale [April 11-20]; and a new adaptation of "Cinderella" written on commission for the company by Greg Atkins [June 6-15]).

* What: "The Velveteen Rabbit."

* When: Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through Nov. 16. Also, Thursday, Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. only.

* Where: The Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Laguna Canyon Road and drive south. The theater will be on the right, just before you enter the downtown area. From the Pacific Coast Highway, turn inland at Broadway, which turns into Laguna Canyon Road.

* Wherewithal: $9-$12 (subscriptions: $30-$42).

* Where to call: (714) 497-2787.

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