Photo Credits: Josh Marshall at PMTO Studios
The opinions in this feature solely reflect the opinions of Eric Scherer.
They in no way purport to represent HIT Entertainment.
Any opinions expressed in this feature are those of Eric Scherer alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Sodor Island Fansite or HIT Entertainment.
If you had told me as a child (actually, if you had told me a year ago) that at 25, I would be giving stage directions to the woman that created the television series that made up most of my childhood, I would have rolled my eyes and said you were insane. There is no way that Britt Allcroft would have time in her schedule to even recognize my crazy bald self. Even if she did, I would end up embarrassing myself and making a complete fool out of all of the people around me. I am very pleased to report that this is nowhere even close to what happened.
As a child, Thomas played an important role in my younger years. In fact, it was with the assistance of Bill and Ben ERTL toys that I was potty trained. My mother thought they would be a great incentive. Little did she know the crazy train-obsessed child she had created. From there, the collection continued (as did my love) for Thomas and Friends, Shining Time Station, and reading all of the wonderful stories. Before moving to Florida, the last item we bought prior to heading down was the complete collection of the Reverend’s stories. In 2000, I was definitely on the older end of the children that saw Thomas and the Magic Railroad in theaters, but nevertheless I enjoyed the experience and being able to spend time with my family.
As the years went by and I grew older, I knew I would become distracted with other life duties: getting a job, finishing school, going to college, etc. I kept Thomas at a distance (and probably for the best as the quality of the episodes had diminished from that point), but I still followed the progression of the series with a significant amount of help from SiF.
In high school, I did a test and adjust phase of my organization, Actors Reaching Out (ARO). Throughout this time, I experimented in seeing what it was like to have a lead in a show, direct, design and construct a set, edit music and video, and basically everything else needed to put a successful production together. For 3 years, I could not construct the organization that I needed and because of that I hit rock bottom. I became very stressed, lost several friends in the process, and could not focus on moving my career forward. It was at this point I decided to move drop everything, transfer schools, obtain a new job, and move out to Orlando where I could start over and have new opportunities.
I continued to write scripts and edit music even though ARO was nonexistent at this point. I knew someday we would be able to bring this back together. In September 2014, with the motivation from a group of people, we formed our Executive Board for Actors Reaching Out and signed our Constitution. In Spring 2015, we became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit. Things were looking like they were moving forward. Then we hit another roadblock. We had our first three shows and nothing booked after that. I had no idea what would happen to the organization.
In March, I decided to take a trip with one of my friends to one of the Day Out with Thomas events, which I never had the opportunity to attend as a child. I am very glad I had a friend with me because a 23 year old walking around a children’s event just seems weird. My friend, a teacher in Sarasota, quite enjoyed the event. We discussed our opinions on everything. Obviously, the train ride with Thomas was absolutely wonderful. Thomas talking was also a weird and amazing experience. It was also wonderful to see the children so excited about this event. There were several issues with the event though. Many of the volunteers had ear buds while working and seemed completely uninterested in hearing what the children had to say. The two entertainment offerings they had were a magician, who wasn’t half bad and was entertaining to the children, and an older gentleman with a guitar, who looked like he would rather be retired on the other coast of the state than be here at this event. The entire time I kept saying to myself “I can do better. What can I do to prove I can do better?” It was at that moment I decided to start constructing a Thomas theatrical event to celebrate the 70th anniversary.
There were a LOT of issues with trying to figure this out. What songs would we use? How would they go from one to another? Would we use the engines? How would they be portrayed on stage? As you can see, a lot of careful planning had to be put into this. Knowing that our budget for our organization was basically non-existent, this whole production had to be carefully constructed to make it as enjoyable and budget-friendly as possible. After all, the last thing I wanted to do was come on stage in painted cardboard boxes and say “Look. We are the trains.” That would have been embarrassing and absurd.
I made the decision to create brand new human characters that represented the various lines of business of the railway: Engineer, Mechanic, Guard, Fireman, and Station Master. In doing this, I created the Sodor Railway Society, a group of railroad workers from the Island of Sodor that travel to educate and celebrate everything about the railway. These characters, which resembled a mixture of personalities from our favorite engines, would then utilize the songs and stories of Thomas in order to enhance the audience experience and to really drive the specific lesson the society was trying to get across.
I made sure I created one specific character that the children would be able to connect with, and that is where Riley comes in. Riley is a younger girl in the Sodor Railway Society that is in training to become an official Engineer. Through the familiar Thomas characters and situations, the rest of the members are able to teach Riley as much as possible about her role and how to be the best railway worker possible.
Choosing the songs and stories was a massive challenge. There was an internal battle of do I use more of the Awdry stories or go through the 450+ episodes of the television series and pick from there, and which of the dozens of songs best represent the character of Thomas as well as the situations the Society gets into on stage.
I finally narrowed it down to three stories: Thomas and the Breakdown Train, Thomas and the Guard, and Thomas Comes to Breakfast. Not only were these favorite stories of mine, but also for those people that helped create them. In addition, these stories showcase several of Thomas’ character traits including his bravery, impatience, and boastfulness. At the end of these stories, there is also a lesson learned that continues to shine through for Riley and her goals.
The songs took a bit longer to go through. There are dozens of Thomas songs that have been written over the last 30 years. I decided the only way to decide which songs needed to go into the show was to listen through every single one of them. This took multiple rounds of eliminating (although a good chunk of them were out in the first round), but we finally found the songs that best fit the theme of the show.
The waiting game happened next. We had no venue to perform the show and no idea if we were even going to be able to perform it live. Finally, we received a call from the Orange County Library System, which booked us for 3 performances over the course of the Fall. Thrilled and nervous, we continued on our crazy adventure.
After many rewrites, edits, song cuts, and cast changes (as there are with any show), we were ready for our huge premiere. A few things were taken from the outcome of the first performance:
1) There were significantly more females in the audience than anyone in the cast could have predicted or anticipated, showing that the marketing for Thomas should not be just geared towards males.
2) The entire audience was impressed by our cast of 5 females and me, the casting of which was unintentional but just happened to work out like that.
3) The cast needed a tad more knowledge on some of the newer characters. Some of the children brought their Thomas Wooden Railway trains with them to the show. When one of our girls asked which train it was, the child replied “Dash.” Silence. I came in and proceeded to have a conversation about the Logging Locos with the child. More silence from the cast. After the event, I was asked about the Misty Island trio, and I knew I had my work cut out for me.
4) The most important takeaway from the event was the realization that we needed to add choreography to the show. When first starting out, I could not process these songs having the ability to translate choreographically on stage. I did not realize until the moment we were in the show singing just how awkward it felt not to be moving during these catchy songs. Therefore, another challenge arose- figuring out the dance moves for our next performance.
After some more script rewrites and the addition of choreography, we were ready for our next performances. The immediate connections and conversations with the children were even better than the first show. Specifically, there was a young boy named Thomas who had recently celebrated his birthday. It turns out that one of our cast members worked with his mom.
The final performance of the show was definitely bittersweet (specifically sweet, because I had Baskin Robbins for the first time after the show). It was definitely weird to realize that we probably would never do the show again, or so we thought. Little did we know that this show would go on to catch the attention of more than just the families in Central Florida.
As we developed the Thomas show, we wanted to make sure we made it interactive, especially with it being a library program. We wrote some lines into the show just for this purpose. We also had an activity afterwards that involved the families working together to make birthday cards for Thomas. They were able to color the front and write the message of their choice inside right to Thomas. There was just one major issue we had at the end of the run: we had no idea what we were going to do with all of these cards. There were around 200 cards that were made for Thomas and we did not know what to do with all of them.
Around the time we were having this dilemma, a video appeared on YouTube of an award ceremony in which TV series creator Britt Allcroft received a very prestigious award. Once our entire cast sat and watched her emotional and moving speech, there was no doubt that we needed to send these cards to Ms. Allcroft.
We packaged the cards together with a letter and some pictures from the show and mailed them to her. We figured if she responded, that would be great. If not, we still would have continued to press forward with all of our other productions.
A few weeks had passed and we were already well into full swing on our 2016 season. At this point, we were at our recording studio working on audio for an upcoming music video. I was checking Facebook and my email for any event updates and came across a notification from a fellow Thomas fan saying that he tagged me in a comment. At this point, I really had not had too many conversations with Brenden, so I really was not sure why I was getting tagged in a comment. When I opened the page, I saw this:
I fell onto the ground. Literally. And I could not get up. Slowly, the rest of the members came out of the studio and discovered me melting onto the floor. In less than a year, we had not only made someone recognize the work we do, but also completely appreciate everything we were doing.
After about a week of collecting my thoughts, I contacted Britt to discuss the show with her a bit. One thing lead to another, and Britt had the idea of us doing the show again so she could come out and see it, not only for us as performers but for the reactions of all of the children and families as well. I calmly walked inside Starbucks and told my Vice President (who was also in the show), “I regret to inform you that your days of being in a Thomas production are far from over, because Britt Allcroft wishes to fly over and see our show in person.” Needless to say, the entire cast was thrilled as well. As a Writer and Director, this also provided me with the opportunity to do a complete rework of the show and to see what I could do to improve upon the material I already had.
As the months past and the date came closer, I made sure our show was a well oiled machine. We were able to add in songs all the way up to The Great Race, which had come out as we were in rehearsal for the show. This allowed our production to incorporate the classic songs as well as being up-to-date with the latest material. Everyone in the cast was confident in the show we had. The only thing we were unsure of was how Britt was going to react to it.
The day before the show was a long and busy one. All of the music cues were finalized, the choreography was the strongest I had seen for our group, and props and costumes finally came together to make a cohesive picture. The final rehearsal made me increasingly nervous. Would everyone be pleased with the work we have done? As rehearsal ended, the time came to pick up Britt from the airport.
After Katie and I picked her up, I had no idea what to say. Suddenly all 800 questions I had about her career- Thomas, Shining Time Station, Mumfie, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, everything- just vanished. The ride to the hotel was quite pleasant. Britt ended up being one of the nicest and most professional people I have ever met. There is so much care and compassion for everything she works on and, like many creators, treats her characters as if they were her own children. I tremendously respect this trait in anyone.
The next morning, we were up bright and early. Katie and I picked Britt up from her hotel and headed to Starbucks where we met up with the remainder of the cast and then proceeded to the Orlando Public Library. The stage where we performed was open in the middle of the library, so there really wasn’t a way to get people to not watch us, which was good and bad. As we ran through our tech/dress run, we started to gather an audience. Instead of kicking them out, we just let them stay. We hit a certain point in the show where I told them thank you for watching and the actual show will be at 3pm. Every single one of them came back at 3pm for the show, and said they appreciated that they were able to see the whole thing twice.
Once we hit show time, we had a full audience. Family, Thomas enthusiasts, people I knew from work, and complete strangers came from all over the state (some even from out of state) to see the event. I think a lot of people expected the entire event to be focused on Britt, with a side of us singing. Due to this, we were not sure how some people would react. On top of already being nervous performing these iconic songs and stories in front of the creator, there were some of my Disney managers there as well that had never seen an ARO show. In the end, everything really worked out. It was funny to see everyone start singing along, particularly my mother when she recognized one of the songs. We added Gone Fishing into this version of the show and she sang the entire thing (quietly) from her seat.
About halfway through the show, Britt took a seat near the side of the stage. Before her arrival to Florida, we made a mutual decision to add her into the end of the show. The lines I originally said to induct Riley into the Sodor Railway Society were then handed over to Britt, which seemed more appropriate. When Britt stepped onto the stage, the entire library erupted in cheer and applause, exactly what we as the cast wanted.
Needless to say, the entire show was a huge success. After our bows, we had a short video that we presented made by Rico Robbins, a fellow Thomas fan. Britt asked us to play his video supporting the Restore the Magic campaign to spread the word about the original edit of Thomas and the Magic Railroad and the DVD release of Shining Time Station. A lot of the Thomas fans cheered during the video, but there was a LOT of reminiscing moments for those that remember the shows from so long ago. There was definitely an interest in seeing both items released.
Britt did a short Q&A following the video. The questions we started with were some of the ones that we answered in our “Meet the Cast” videos that premiered the week before. Some of the questions asked included:
Who was your favorite Conductor? “I feel incredibly blessed to have worked with all of them.”
Do you have a favorite engine? “I have to be honest. I think it’s Percy. I think he is very cheeky too and he’s green and I love green.”
What is your favorite story? “Down the Mine is one because that is the story that we first filmed… but I am also fond of All At Sea… I wrote it as an original story, but I wanted to Duck to have his own story.”
What is your favorite song? “I think the theme.”
Probably the most emotional was when one our guests asked: “What has Thomas truly meant to you in your life? What has he done that has made all of this so memorable, so amazing? Not just for us, but for you?” Britt took a moment and replied very sincerely: “You. Really, it’s you guys. Every time. The money that I made was nice, but this is what it’s really about.” Touching the hearts of all that were there, it was clear to everyone (if it wasn’t already) that Britt shared as much passion and love for the characters and stories as we the fans did.
We usually offer to take pictures with the children after, but this time we had a queue for pictures with us which was incredible. Everyone wanted to talk with us about our future projects, how we put the show together, and if we would be doing any other Thomas projects. It was nice to know that we as an organization were accepted by everyone in the audience that day.
Everything from this day still has not processed in my brain. I have basically fulfilled every fan’s ultimate dream, in which a piece of fan fiction was produced and presented in front of a live audience and the creator actually made an appearance in the show. It sounds completely falsified and irrational, but it truly happened. Every outcome was the best case scenario and I could not have been more pleased with the cast, the script, and being able to work side by side with Britt Allcroft.
Eric Scherer is currently working on producing numerous events and productions for Actors Reaching Out. By the end of next year, just under 3 years of being an official nonprofit, the organization will have produced 100 events and performances benefiting the Central Florida community. His hopes are to continue growing the organization and ultimately become a nationally recognized nonprofit. For more information about Actors Reaching Out and updates on future events and productions, please visit www.ActorsReachingOut.org.