Wednesday, August 14, 2019

How a Spoof of a Famous Boy Wizard Named Harry ends up offering a New Perspective on a Well Known Story: Talking to the Director and a Cast Member of the play PUFFS

Colleen Thompson and Dan Ashlock
photo by Julia Bashaw
by Julia Bashaw

There is a widely know series of children's books that were adapted into a successful film franchise about a boy who discovers he is a wizard. He attends a magic school, learns spells, and fights evil. But what about everyone else? How did the other students in the background experience their seven years at school?

That question was the basis for Matt Cox who wrote the play Puffs, which is a spoof of the famous book and film series about a boy wizard named Harry. This new and unique play is being performed at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale which opens this weekend.

“We all know the story of Harry and his seven years at a Magic School, well Puffs is told from the point of view of a different house. It follows pretty much the same storyline but it shows it from the Puffs house perspective,” explained director Dan Ashlock. “People who are familiar with Harry's story are going to be in a place where they will enjoy Puffs and if you don't know that story it is still great. There is a narrator that guides you through the story and so he fills in the blanks.”

Dan Ashlock has been directing practically since college, earned a theatre degree, and has been involved in community theatre off and on throughout his life. He has directed at Desert Stages before, his first production being Moon Over Buffalo.

“I like directing because you get to create some of your visions and then you get to invite other people in to augment your vision and help bring it to reality,” Ashlock stated. “You get that spark of energy that everyone else brings to the project and the ideas that they bring. You get to steer the ship so to speak.”

DST picks the shows to put in their season by asking their current directors for suggestions on what they would like to direct. Ashlock discovered the show Puffs through his subscription to Broadway HD.

“I stayed up till 2 a.m. watching it and then for a week I was googling everything I could find about the show. I put my name on a list to be notified when the rights to the show would become available. When they did I called DST and told them. Months later when their season got shaped they asked me to come on board and direct it.”

It is made clear that life is a little hard on the Puffs. One of the marketing slogans to promote the play on Broadway was “a play for anyone who has never been destined to save the world." It’s established that the Puffs are just ordinary regular people, not necessarily the main characters. In fact, there really isn’t a main character in Puffs, it is an ensemble show with all the actors playing multiple roles. Therefore the casting was crucial. Open auditions were held and 30 people showed up to audition for the 11 person cast.

The Puffs cast in rehearsal
photo by Julia Bashaw
“I was looking for people that were willing to take chances,” stated Ashlock. “There are several productions where people play more than one character but I wanted to make sure when I asked actors to play different characters that they took it seriously. That they would alter their voices, that they would alter their physicality, and that they would have fun with each character. I was also looking for actors who were good at playing off of other people and how they were interacting with each other. Casting a show for me is always a matching process. I started with the 11 characters and created charts of who would play parts based on who was which. Then I would look for all the commonalities and how it would work best. I'm super pleased with our cast.”

One of the 11 cast members is Colleen Thompson, who recently returned to the theatre world. She was involved in theatre all throughout elementary school and performed in three out the four productions at her high school. She decided to take a theatre class in college but became disheartened by her peers and mentors telling her she was ‘too nice’ to be an actor. She moved on from acting, grew up, had a family, but started to become involved again due to one of her sons.

“Well, the past few years my son started acting in shows. So I’ve been like ‘stage-mom’ for three years,” Thompson explained. “That made me realize how I miss this and that I really wanted to do it again but I was afraid I was too old to get back into it. As my son kept acting he got involved here (Desert Stages Theatre) and that was my first experience with this theatre.”

As her son continued getting cast in various shows, Thompson realized she needed to try and get back into acting. Her first push came when one of her mom’s friends in Sun City needed someone near Thompson’s age to perform in a community show.

“I thought you know what, I’m going to go for it,” smiled Thompson. “I did the role there in Sun City and I just finished a show with Dan at Starlight Theatre and then I kinda followed him here! So when they announced auditions (for Puffs) I was like yup I am trying out! So my first year back into acting and I already have three shows under my belt!” She laughed with delight.

Thompson’s main Puff character is Hannah but she also plays seven other roles. According to Dan Ashlock, there are a total of 51 named characters but also another dozen or so unnamed characters in this show.

“The biggest physical challenge is just making sure I have all my props and costumes with me for each character,” Thompson admitted. There are 120 props, over 80 costumes, 5 doors, and 7 weekends of shows with a whopping total of 21 performances. The cast will only have had 20 rehearsals before opening night.

“It is a very quick process,” Ashlock stated. “It is relatively quick so we can get a run-through of the play in every night. Rehearsals are a lot of fun for me as a director, and everyone is willing to try something new. One of the fun things about this cast is that they have really good chemistry. They get along on stage and off stage. It really creates what a community theatre should do which is to create a family and a sense of belonging.”

“This cast has been amazing,” Thompson added. “We all help each other, like backstage all of a sudden there's this extra hand helping you get your robe on or there is somebody handing you a prop. We have discovered we are all literally the Puffs.”

The Puffs have some distinct qualities, loyalty, fairness, and kindness. They are not flashy, proud, or known in the public eye. They are everyday people that are hugely important in a different way.

“It is heartwarming to know that there are people out there like underdogs and Puffs who are doing just regular things for regular people and making a difference in the lives of others,” Ashlock smiled. “You can fight evil or call out bullies or you can stand up to people that have different values than you and still be nice about it. One of the messages in this play is the age-old concept of friendship. That no matter how different you might appear, you can build strong bonds under the most irregular, terrifying experiences and still emerge out the other end as life long friends that will do anything for each other.”

photo by Renee Ashlock
“Part of the show keeps reiterating the idea that you never know when you are the hero in somebody else’s story,” Thompson began. “You may not even think of yourself as a hero, you may think that you are a failure, or a loser, or a dumb stupid Puff. But you don't know how other people are seeing you and you don't know the impact you are having on other people's lives. So you should always try to be the best you. Be the best that you can be with the gifts you have been given and you could be affecting other people’s lives in major positive ways. You may not always get to see or know the impact but it is still worth it. I think a really important part of this play shows that you matter. Whatever you’re doing you matter to somebody so don’t give up.”

“If you’re new to this world of magic it’s okay! The play is still going to be a super lot of fun!” Expressed Thompson. “Lots of laughs and definitely some poignant moments that make you think about you’re own journey through life. But for those who are in the know (about the characters and books the play is based on), there are definitely things that will just be that extra inside joke. I am very excited to hear feedback from both sides.”

Puffs runs August 16th through September 29th but for the young wizards and their parents that are attending please know it is Rated R for language. Director, Cast, and Crew await your arrival to experience this magical world and hopefully take something personally away with you.

“I hope that the audience leaves with a smile on their face” Ashlock added.

CLICK HERE for more information on PUFFS at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre


  1. Saw the preiview scene at the Desert Stages 25th anniversary celebration. Looks absolutely HILARIOUS!!! Going the 2nd weekend.