Good Grief, That Could be the Summer Winner

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 27, 2020
Screenings of Ensemble Theatre Company Young Actors Conservatory’s production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown take place August 29

For Brian McDonald, selecting You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown as the production for Ensemble Theatre Company Young Actors Conservatory this summer was a no-brainer once it became clear that COVID-19 had made his original choice – Hello, My Baby, by Montecito’s Cheri Steinkellner – impractical.

Not only had ETC’s Education Director played the title character in the musical based on the Peanuts comic strip as a budding actor back in high school, he’d also previously directed young actors in the chestnut during his 16-year tenure as Education Director at Rubicon Theatre, the professional company 30 miles south.

The revue of songs and vignettes based on the beloved Charles Schulz comic strip premiered in the 1960s and has become a staple at schools across the land ever since. With the restrictions on gatherings caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, McDonald turned the much-believed piece into a fun, upbeat, and decidedly innovative virtual production that will have its premiere for just two shows this weekend after being rescheduled from August 22.

The musical comedy features the legacy characters from the original comic strip, including Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Schroeder, Sally and Linus, who make their way through the challenges of young life in a series of vignettes that are bolstered by a bevy of simply but winning songs, including “Happiness,” “My Blanket and Me,” “The Kite,” “The Baseball Game,” and “Suppertime.”

Morgan P. Johnson, who appeared in ETC’s YAC production of Into the Woods last year, stars in the title role of the doleful but ever-hopeful Charlie Brown, while Ruby Campbell, whose experience runs to shows from Lights Up! Theatre and Stage Left as well as ETC, plays his frenemy Lucy Van Pelt. Cassidy Broderick, who starred as Little Red in ETC’s Into the Woods, now plays Charlie Brown’s pouty, petulant little sister Sally. Making their ETC debuts are Jett Mortensen as Snoopy and his brother Beck as Schroeder, and Leo Kearney, who takes on Linus, Lucy’s blanket-dependent brother.

Based solely on a one-minute preview video posted to ETC’s website, the youth production of the musical looks to be one of the clear winners of the summer, perhaps exceeding the well-produced opera scenes and other videos created by the Music Academy of the West earlier in the season. Unlike a typical Zoom-created show where the creativity ends at mixing up the little boxes, McDonald has come up with a live action-animated amalgam appropriate to the material’s comic strip source, with plenty of stitched-together interactions and scenes.

McDonald talked about the work over the phone earlier this week.

Q. Why did you pick this piece for the summer production?

A. Back in March, when so much was unpredictable as far as what we were going to be able to produce, we still had plans to do a full summer production of Hello, My Baby. But once we realized we’d have to go online on Zoom, I immediately knew there was no way we could do something that big, which has a cast of 24 and a lot of big numbers. So I started to think about shows that I knew that would translate well to an online presentation and be enjoyable for people to watch but yet also something that we could successfully pull off.

This only has six characters, and they’re so wonderful and flawed and just charming and they care for each other, despite their differences. There’s great philosophies behind Charles Schulz’s work and the Peanuts gang, things that are timeless. I think it really connects with us and brings us great joy. The whole thing is about happiness, and its message makes people happy, especially seeing kids in all these roles.

Your concept for the piece, at least based on what I saw, seems very ambitious, not to mention a lot of work.

I really wanted to do something that was a little bit different than what most people are doing online these days with these Zoom productions with students. I wanted to take it a little bit further, and I felt that the best way to do that was to treat it like a film instead of as a theater piece.

So while all of the music rehearsals were online while we were teaching the kids the songs, we also did outside rehearsals, with social distancing with masks on and face shields and whatever we needed to do to be able to choreograph in person with the kids. Because it’s only a cast of six, we were able to do that and stay within the boundaries of the government regulations. We were up at Marymount School, where they have a beautiful campus and we spread out and had this whole area to ourselves. Back inside, I built a big greenscreen studio in a large hall and then brought each of the kids in one at a time. We shot every clip of this, with the students one at a time. And we also took them to a recording studio to record their vocals individually too with a sound guy who was serving as recording engineer.

So the quality of the show is pretty fantastic. The last few weeks I’ve been putting it together and it looks great. I think people are really going to have their expectations exceeded.

That’s definitely true for me. I just watched the one-minute promo and it’s pretty astounding compared to other things I’ve seen. It’s almost like you treated it as an animated film or rather one of those that combines live and animation and it looks great.

Yeah, it’s a bit like Blue’s Clues (the live-action/animated educational children’s television series). That’s the direction we wanted to go with. That’s what makes it perfect for like the little ones, like your two-year-old, your three-year-old are going to find it really enjoyable. In fact, I think they’re going to be very disappointed when they can’t play it again.

Those scenes like Schroeder playing the piano with Lucy lying on top, or flying the kite seem like they must have been hard to do. And to make it look like the kids are in the same space, I’m impressed.

Thanks. Everything you see, the kids are actually on green screen and then I’ve just incorporated them into this cartoon world. I’ve been very resourceful thanks to the internet and training myself on all of this editing stuff. I’ve been going online and obtaining royalty-free images and clips and green-screen things to pull it all together.

How did you make all these choices for the animations in the staging? Did you have those ideas from the get-go, or was it more of a matter of what you could find online?

It’s really a combination of both. I would start to search for a certain kind of background or setting and then I would discover something else and realize, oh, that might work even better. Sometimes I could take that particular image or that video clip as it was or else put it into Photoshop and create something new, even though I’m no expert by any means. For example, the doghouse and doctor-psychiatric booth, I created those myself because you can’t just take from Charles Schulz’s work. So I am so grateful to be able to go on to Google and ask “How do I deal with title legacies in Premiere Pro?” And then I’d watch the tutorial and learn how to do it before moving on to the next thing. That’s how I’ve been functioning to get this made.

I’m beginning to see why you postponed it for another week…

Yeah, we’re venturing into very new territory for us, taking what we normally do and then having to edit it and create all of these videos to come up with a full musical production and convert it to online. It just takes time to do it right, and we didn’t want to rush it. We wanted to make it the best it could possibly be and felt as though an additional week would help.

I know once it’s finished, I’m going to look back and be very thrilled and happy to get it done, but I also know that there’s so many little things that I would have adjusted or changed if there were more time. But I really do think that most people’s expectations are just gonna get blown out of the water because I really haven’t seen anybody do this at a quality at this level, even though I would say it’s beautifully imperfect.

(Screenings of Ensemble Theatre Company Young Actors Conservatory’s production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown take place at 2 pm and 7 pm this Saturday, August 29. Tickets are $25 per household and are available online at or through the ETC Box Office at (805) 965-5400 ext. 115. Ticket holders will receive a unique viewing link and viewing instructions prior to the performance.)


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