‘A piece of my heart onstage’: Patrick W. Lord on his new play for tots

The projection and video designer talks about writing and directing 'Fitting In,' a show for two- to five-year-olds, which just premiered at Arts on the Horizon.

While Patrick W. Lord is a familiar name in the DC-area theater community, most people know him from his work as a projection and video designer, Lord has gained national attention from his design work on multiple national tours, including Mean Girls, On Your Feet!, and Hairspray. Lord also enjoys writing, particularly for children. Start with a Spark, a children’s book that Lord co-wrote with Nitya Ramlogan, is now on sale at local Politics and Prose bookstores.

Lord’s first piece of theater writing, Fitting In, a nonverbal show geared toward very young audiences (ages 1–5) co-written with Megan Thrift, is now enjoying its world premiere presented by Arts on the Horizon at Theatre on the Run (through March 25, 2023) and at 1st Stage (April 1). Lord is also directing the show. When I heard Lord remark that “this is the closest you will ever come to seeing a piece of my heart on a stage,” I became eager to learn more about the project. Here is what I found out:

Nicole: Tell us about Fitting In. What is the story about? What should people expect from the production?

Pablo Guillen, Emily Erickson, and Graciela Rey in ‘Fitting In.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Patrick: Fitting In is about the power of imagination and the joy of creative play. It’s a story of siblings and family and the fun dynamics that exist between friends and family. The action centers around the simple task of needing to clean up and pack away random objects in an attic, and it takes audiences on a journey of discovery and delight through dance, clowning, puppetry, and some lovely moments of true magic.

This is your first experience directing. What has it been like? What made you want to direct?

I could not have asked for a better first experience directing, especially since I also co-wrote the show [with Megan Thrift] and so it was really dear to my heart. I am a big believer in the importance and power of creating theatre and art for young audiences because they are the audiences of the future, and so shows like this are how we spark an interest in the arts. I also had the privilege of an incredible cast and creative team of designers and artists around me, which I am so thankful for.

I am just someone who loves telling stories, and I wanted to challenge myself to learn and grow as an artist. TVY (Theatre for the Very Young), which is different from TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences), is exciting because of how visual it is. Since the stories are nonverbal, we tell the narrative through action, movement, music, and stage pictures, so it was a perfect medium for me to apply my experience to something new.

What is your writing background? I believe you wrote a children’s book recently. What draws you to writing for children?

I don’t have much of a formal writing background — I’ve just been in the business of stories my whole life. I did write a children’s book recently, Start with a Spark — published locally through Politics and Prose here in the DC area. It’s about the power of inspiration and exploring the world. I really like creating art and stories for children because I think we have an obligation to inspire and uplift those coming after us. So much theater is geared toward older audiences, but those patrons are rarely going to have epiphanies or be moved in substantial ways — even if they enjoy a show. With young audiences, you have a chance to make a really unique and fundamental connection. Especially with Arts on the Horizon shows, this company serves an age group where the show they’re doing is often a child’s very first exposure to theater! I think it’s amazing to connect with other humans in such an honest and deep way, even if the other humans are a little smaller.

Projection and Video Designer Patrick W. Lord

I believe that you started in theater as a designer. What has been your experience shifting between different parts of the creative process (design, direction, writing, anything else you’ve done)

Honestly, it may be surprising to hear, but I do not feel like my approach changes much, even in different roles. I work as a designer, and being a writer or director is a rare exception to that, but that just means using different tools, while still working toward the same goal: telling a clear and compelling story. I work hard to ensure that the heart of any process I’m a part of, no matter what side of the table or stage I’m on, is centered around creating a caring environment where every artist is able to do their best work, and we are all able to push creative boundaries and innovate.

In a recent Facebook post, you describe Fitting In by saying, “This show is as close as you’ll ever see to a piece of my heart on stage.” Can you talk more deeply about that?

As a designer in theater, I make a living creating worlds and making imagination manifest itself on stage. This show distills that idea down and really reminds people about the joy that can be found in imagination, and that’s been a lovely reminder to me. It’s easy to be cynical these days, to see the broken things in the world, but this production also shows us that even the most ordinary or common things possess an infinite potential, if we believe hard enough.

Graciela Rey, Emily Erickson, and Pablo Guillen in ‘Fitting In.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What do you hope very young audiences take away from early theater experiences?

I hope every young audience member leaves every show believing, even just a little bit, that magic is real; that it’s inside them, and all around them. Even if it only lasts a little while, if we can impart that belief that the world is a truly wondrous and amazing place, that is the first step toward inspiring them to see what’s possible and, eventually, make the world better.

Why is it important to expose very young people to theater?

The earlier a person sees theater and art, the sooner they start dreaming of what’s possible and learning about the importance of stories. TVY and TYA are how we start to reshape what the theater canon looks like. When young people demand to see stories on stages that reflect their lives and the world they are in, then we start having conversations and creating art that really makes a difference and an impact.

Because Fitting In is geared toward such a young audience, it — like most of Arts on the Horizon’s shows — is nonverbal. Can you talk about directing a show that is primarily told through movement and music? Also maybe the experience of collaborating with the composer?

It is nonverbal, and that was a really fun challenge! It’s why we created a rich world of movement and music, and I was lucky to have Emily Erickson not only as a composer but as a member of the cast! Arts on the Horizon often has a live musician, but our world is prerecorded orchestrations, so Emily and I worked closely to build out rich, layered musical landscapes that were closely tied with each beat of the story. This show is closer to ballet than you might expect. Especially since our entire cast, Graciela Rey, Pablo Guillén, and Emily herself, are all extremely talented dancers and movement actors.

Anything else you want to add?

You don’t need a little human to see our show! We welcome adults and audiences of all ages, and I truly believe that anyone and everyone will enjoy and connect with this story and how beautifully the performers tell it on stage.

Fitting In plays through March 25, 2023, presented by Arts on the Horizon performing at the Theatre on the Run, 3700 S Four Mile Run Dr, Arlington, VA. Tickets are $10 for children and adults and can be purchased online or at the door on the day of the performance: Fridays, March 17 and 24 at 10:30 am; Saturdays, March 18 and 25 at 10 am and 11:30 am. (Fitting In is also touring locally to Alexandria preschools, weekdays through March 28, 2023, and will be performed for free at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road Tysons, VA, on Friday, March 31 at 10:30 am; Saturday, April 1 at 10 am and 11:30 am; and Sunday, April 2 at 11 am.)

Best for children ages 2–5 and their families.
Running Time: About 30 minutes.
The program for Fitting In is downloadable here (scroll down).

Fitting In
Written by Patrick W. Lord and Megan Thrift
​Directed by Patrick W. Lord
Original Music Composed by Emily Erickson & Produced by navi


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