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He's got the Munschies

'Cartoon-character' actor bringing beloved author's books to life on PTE's stage

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In 1990, a young actress from Vancouver made her debut in Prairie Theatre Exchange's annual Munsch show, which took her on a frosty provincial tour in a van prone to breaking down.

Fast-forward to 2013 and that performer, Sharon Bajer, is directing her first children's play -- another Robert Munsch collection for the Portage Place-based company-- about a chilled touring troupe whose van conks out at Portage and Main during a severe cold snap.

"I have come full circle with PTE and Munsch," says Bajer, who is helming PTE's 24th annual holiday celebration of Munsch stories this year titled Portage & Munsch: 50 Below, opening Friday.

"I remember in 1990, travelling in this old van called The Pickle because it was green and ugly," says the veteran actress, playwright and, more recently, emerging director. "Harry Nelken was the stage manager and I can still see him working on a flat tire and we were in the ditch."

Bajer can pass on her first-hand experiences on the road with More Munsch to her three young actors -- Murray Farnell, Aaron Pridham and Kelci Stephenson -- in Portage & Munsch. Playwright Debbie Patterson has fashioned a story which incorporates five Munsch stories: Pigs!, Zoom!, I Have to Go!, A Promise Is a Promise and 50 Below Zero.

Performing the 50-minute work twice a day -- 24 times through Jan. 5 and another 70 through mid-March -- is no subdued meditation on the intelligence of our porcine friends or on the parental frustrations with inconvenient calls of nature by their children. Each performance is a lively sprint for the cast, who must never allow a dull moment or risk losing the kids to boredom.

"If the actors aren't sweating and don't have bruises by the end of the day, they aren't doing it right," says Bajer. "Every second of the show is packed with things to keep the kids' attention."

The fit, 24-year-old Pridham usually exercises several times a week at the gym, but since rehearsals began, he's had no need for pumping iron; performing Portage & Munsch is the only daily workout he needs. His part as Neil requires constant movement, singing and frequent tapping into his improvisational skills when interacting with unpredictable youngsters onstage.

"At the very least, we have to match the energy of the children," says the 2012 University of Winnipeg theatre graduate.

He has been told he possesses a cartoon-character quality that comes from being a big kid at heart.

"To me, he just looks like a Munsch character," says Bajer. "He's the kind of guy all the kids will go to because he is funny, warm and open."

When he was growing up in the off-Osborne neighbourhood of Riverview, Pridham was a Munsch kid who particularly loved 50 Below Zero and could recite it from start to finish. He even once re-enacted it for his parents. He was an actor early on, but in those days they called it "pretending."

"I remember when we went to elementary school and there was this baseball diamond, which became a portal into another world," says Pridham, who is making his PTE debut. "Whenever we went to the baseball diamond we would be in this magical world, which sometimes involved Power Rangers or ninjas. Sometimes I was Aladdin and my friends were the guards."

In his brief acting career, interrupted by a stint as server in a Corydon Avenue sushi restaurant, Pridham has landed more adult parts than G-rated fare. In a 2012 local production of Avenue Q, he played the naive romantic lead in a raunchy musical that included scenes of graphic puppet sex. That was him playing the angsty student lusting after his busty piano teacher in Spring Awakening for Winnipeg Studio Theatre in 2011.

"I had to do things that might not have been seen as child-friendly," says Pridham, who has been cast in a Winnipeg Studio Theatre revival of Avenue Q in April.

Recently he has tried his hand at stand-up comedy as a way to expand his skill set. Stage work outside the fringe festival has not been easy to come by but he remains upbeat about making a career as a performer.

"I didn't go into it thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm always going to have shows,'" he says. "I know it's a lot of hard work and you have to make some of your own sometimes and find ways to keep motivated."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2013 C8

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