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Child's play 

Mary Claire Dunn directs 85 kids in A Very Merry spoof

When Mary Claire Dunn directs A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant for Dad's Garage Theatre, she turns nine children into singing, dancing, celebrity-impersonating performers for a straight-faced spoof of Scientology.

Directing a 9-year-old boy to play Tom Cruise creates special challenges, but riding herd over nine children, for Dunn, is very nearly kid's stuff. As the resident director of the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, Dunn directs casts of up to 85 third- through eighth-graders for the school's annual musicals such as Peter Pan. No matter how big a brood is involved, however, Dunn wants to train her kids not just to hit their marks but to understand their texts and artistic choices, whether they're in a classic family tale or a satiric exposé of Dianetics. Scientology serves as a prime example of Dunn's vision of theater by children but for adults, which she plans to explore in her new theater company, Metropolis Port.

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant isn't your usual elementary school or church holiday show, even though playwright Kyle Jarrow uses the conventions of both. With its irreverent biography of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the show crafts zany musical numbers around alien overlord Xenu, with the cast of 8- through 13-year-olds illustrating how impressionable innocent people can be in the face of cultish conditioning.

Some critics have questioned whether the young performers truly appreciate the material's ironic message, or whether they're being exploited. "Giving them the lines and not telling them the reason why, that's exploitation," Dunn insists. At Scientology's auditions, Dunn made a point of informing the stage parents what their children were in for. "Your child is going to learn all about Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard and why Scientologists are so adamant about secrecy. We'll also be re-enacting a World War II battle." Dunn thoroughly researched Scientology and gave the kids a lesson in the religion on the first day of rehearsal.

Dad's Garage revives its hit production from last year, with the entire cast returning. Dunn adores such sights as Hunter Ballard's gleeful performance as L. Ron Hubbard. "To see a child have a revelation on stage is why I do what I do." But it's hardly what she originally set out to do. Dunn, 33, came from what she describes as a sheltered upbringing near Cartersville. After studying drama at the University of Georgia and pursuing her MFA degree in acting at Brooklyn College, she began acting professionally in New York and Chicago. During an ill-fated performance of Circle Theatre's acclaimed Fool for Love in Chicago in 2004, however, she injured her lower lumbar vertebra so badly that she was bedridden for weeks and couldn't exercise for a year and a half.

Sidelined as a performer, Dunn started working with children at a New Jersey summer arts camp, where she found her calling. Dunn acts periodically, having recently performed in Wizzer Pizzer and Nickled and Dimed at 7 Stages, but she's mostly focused on the fledgling theater Metropolis Port, which she founded with Bulgarian director Prodan Dimov.

The new company's slate includes a professional children's ensemble called Charlie's Port, which Dun named for her late brother and his stuffed basset hound doll, called "Port," that he kept as a youngster. The group's upcoming projects include a one-man autobiography by Scientology's Jason David called Waiting for My Growth Spurt, as well as Cookie Crumble, Cookie Toss, which imagines Glengarry Glen Ross with Girl Scout cookie leagues and transforms David Mamet's profanities like "bullshit" to "horse doo-doo."

While Dunn has unwavering faith in the abilities of child actors to communicate rich themes on a grown-up level, she acknowledges that sometimes directing kids involves basic crowd control. "When you're directing 85 kids, you have to do it in shifts, and you have to use police tactics. They don't pay attention because they're kids – they're having fun. To get them to pay attention, I shout 'Fo-cus!' and they answer back 'Check!' I have to do that maybe 20 times in a 90-minute rehearsal."

Fortunately, "focus" sounds like something Dunn has in abundance as she strives to teach a new generation of young actors how to have revelations on stage, without requiring them to read Dianetics to find them.

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