This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

TROUPE 7935 of Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, makes its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic.

STORY

You’re probably familiar with the story of the famous boy wizard and his friends from school who overcome enormous danger to save their world from an evil adversary. This isn’t their story. Instead, it’s a peek inside the lives of the other students in that magic school’s most unassuming house, students known as the Puffs.

Like the story it parodies, Puffs circles around a trio of friends. In this case, we follow Wayne, Oliver, and Megan from their first-day sorting ceremony to the opening of a scary secret chamber to the memorable year a charismatic student named Cedric finally pushes the Puffs into the spotlight during a multischool wizarding tournament — a time cheekily referred to as “Year Four: The Puffs and the Year They Mattered.”

Over and over, as the Puffs find themselves on the sidelines of monumental events, they come to realize that being loyal, faithful, and kind matters as much as being brave, smart, or ruthless and that heroes are often decided by who tells the story.

BACKGROUND

Playwright Matt Cox has said the idea for Puffs — which has been described as “a play for anyone who has not been destined to save the world” — came to him as a random thought on a subway ride. He started imagining how terrible it would have been to be one of the other Hogwarts students at the same time as Harry Potter, their world growing progressively more chaotic with each passing year. Puffs was born as a parody of J.K. Rowling’s immensely popular series (though it is not authorized, licensed, or endorsed by Rowling, Warner Brothers, or other companies associated with the Harry Potter books, films, or play).

The play premiered in 2015 at New York’s Peoples Improv Theater. In 2017, it was produced at New World Stages, where it ran until August 2018. That production gained new fans across the world when it was filmed live for theatrical release.

TROUPE 7935’S PRODUCTION

Ardrey Kell Theatre’s co-directors Terry Gabbard and Brian Seagroves set high expectations for the students in their growing program. “I have always felt the term ‘high school theatre’ brings with it a notion of mediocrity,” Gabbard said. “We focus on creating professional quality theatre housed in a high school with high school actors. For us, the greatest measure of success is when community members, with no connection to our school, show up because they have heard they will have an amazing experience when they attend an AK show.”

Their program earned additional validation this year when the troupe’s production of Puffs was invited to perform on the main stage of ITF, recognition Gabbard describes as “an incredible honor and, for me, the highlight of my career.”

Choosing Puffs as part of his 2019-20 theatre season was an easy decision for Gabbard, who is entering his eighth year at Ardrey Kell. “I absolutely fell in love with this script,” Gabbard said. “I wanted to direct this play more than anything I’ve ever wanted to direct. It is so funny yet has so much heart.”

It was an equally easy sell to his Thespians. “Most of my students were already part of the Potter fandom,” Gabbard said. “Those who weren’t did appropriate research. By audition time, they had read the script or seen the live off-Broadway [filmed version]. They spent the summer of 2019 perfecting the appropriate magic school professor impersonation.”

For Bashi Hariharan, a Thespian senior and the show’s first-time stage manager, Puffs offers a more relatable story than its Potter counterpart. “I don’t think many people can relate to the main trio in the Harry Potter series, but Wayne, Megan, and Oliver bring the story to a level where it’s easy to feel a closer connection to the main characters,” she said.

Cast member Rachel Rudolph, a Thespian sophomore, says the challenges the Puffs face as they struggle to adjust to their new school are familiar to every student still in search of their tribe. “From the outside looking in, high school is easily divided into ‘houses’ through stereotypes. Nerds, jocks, mean kids,” Rudolph said. “Puffs are kids who don’t fit the mold. They have their friends, and they’re content with that. High school students, especially, deserve to see a show with decent, good, and loyal characters. Those characteristics might not be as flashy as being smart or brave, but they are important and too often overlooked.”

Rudolph plays six roles in Puffs, including representations of The Boy Who Lived and the ghostly Moaning Myrtle. “Playing Harry was the most fun I could ever have onstage,” she said. “Contrary to the books and movies, in Puffs Harry is snobby, annoying, and very quirky. Getting to play an obnoxious yet loving character like Harry onstage is every actor’s dream.

“Playing Myrtle taught me to push myself,” she continued. “I had no idea I could do a Moaning Myrtle impression. When Mr. Gabbard asked me at auditions, I panicked and said, ‘Yes, of course.’ Then, I went home and rehearsed for hours. She’s truly an icon, and I hope I did her justice.”

Puffs cuts a fast and furious path through a story that took Rowling seven novels to tell, making the theatrical production deceptively complex. Like Rudolph, most members of the cast perform multiple roles, so props and costumes were extensive. “We had six props tables and four separate costume racks backstage, with others in dressing rooms,” Gabbard said. “We started rehearsals a month earlier than we normally would for a nonmusical. Most of that added rehearsal time was needed to get the entrances, exits, props, and costumes executed perfectly. We taped traffic lanes behind the set so actors wouldn’t run into one another.”

The speed of the show proved another challenge for its cast and crew. “Puffs is a romp,” Rudolph said, “so it is a play with nonstop energy. Keeping the pace and energy up for the entire show was exhausting but worth it.”

On its surface, Puffs is a laugh-out-loud comedy, but a more profound message lurks just underneath. “I think the deeper meanings and nuances were figured out when the cast was fully in character, interacting with each other onstage — especially in those more heartfelt moments,” Hariharan said. “As someone who’s more design-oriented, [I appreciated how] we really used the set to our advantage in displaying both the themes of the show and personalities of the characters.”

Rudolph says the script made her look at Rowling’s story with fresh eyes. “When reading Harry Potter as a child, I rarely thought of the Puffs,” she said. “I believed they were the most boring house, and that the Braves [Puffs’ tongue-in-cheek substitution for Gryffindors] were the heroes. After getting to read and work on this piece, my view has completely shifted. The show helped teach me that underdogs can triumph if you look at a story from a different perspective. Anyone can be the hero of their own story.”

Hariharan agrees. “It’s easy to feel like a background character in someone else’s story, but Puffs shows that you don’t have to be a prodigy or legend to stand out. It sounds cheesy, but you don’t need to change yourself for others to like you. You’ll find those who love and accept you for who you are.”

That’s a message Gabbard, who identifies as a Hufflepuff, is eager for students to hear. “I recently turned 40 and have been teaching theatre for 17 years,” he said. “I can say at this stage in life, I have come to terms with my Puff-iness. I was never good at sports, wasn’t popular in school, wasn’t that great of an actor, and sometimes got distracted and put the milk in the pantry instead of the fridge. Yet, somehow, I was able to direct a play that was selected as one of 11 incredible productions in the nation. Puffs learn to embrace their mistakes and shortcomings, are not overly concerned with trying to be better than anyone else, are loyal friends, and can always see the good in others. These are things I value in my life and lessons I hope to pass on to my students.”

In true Puffs fashion, the Thespians of Ardrey Kell are making the most of their show’s nontraditional ITF conclusion. “I’m proud that we were the first high school selected to showcase a play I believe will become one of the most popular titles in the coming years,” Gabbard said. “There will always be a level of sadness knowing we were not able to showcase our work on the main stage in front of our fellow Thespians. But that disappointment can never eclipse how proud I am of the Puffs cast and crew and how special our journey has been.”

Hariharan stressed the rewards of working with what she described as the “sweetest, most hardworking, funniest, talented, and all-around wholesome people” in the Puffs ensemble.

“I know many high school theatre productions have been canceled, and for seniors like me, it hits especially hard because these shows were our last, at least in high school,” she said. “But I think it’s important to be grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given and, most of all, to remember the good times and the wonderful people we’ve met along the way.”

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