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CCCT alum Patrick Treadway in Spokane, Wash. with his puppet The Constable, part of the cast of the new production "A Child' Christmas in Wales."

EL CERRITO -- In 1974, Patrick Treadway, then 14, graced the boards on the Contra Costa Civic Theatre stage as Kurt, the von Trapp family's youngest son in the "Sound of Music."

In 2013, Treadway, now 53 and a CCCT alum, is returning in the form of a 9-foot-tall Constable made entirely out of cardboard, hot glue, muslin, and a few rubber bands to make the jaw snap. As the wish-fulfillment of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's childhood memories in CCCT's production of "A Child's Christmas in Wales," an adaptation for stage by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell opening Nov. 22, the Constable will require three operators.

One puppeteer will maneuver his spine, another point his hand, and a third, manipulate his ventriloquist doll-like eyes and mouth.

CCCT alum Patrick Treadway in Spokane, Wash. with his puppet The Constable, part of the cast of the new production "A Child’ Christmas in
CCCT alum Patrick Treadway in Spokane, Wash. with his puppet The Constable, part of the cast of the new production "A Child' Christmas in Wales."

Treadway's participation required less handling -- simply an invitation from CCCT's new artistic director, Marilyn Langbehn, to re-create puppets similar to those he had made for the show's 1993 production in Spokane, Wash.

The Bay Area native moved to Spokane in 1988 because it's a place an actor/director/artist/puppeteer can afford to own a home.

Raised in the Oakland hills, San Francisco and Berkeley, Treadway occasionally speaks of himself in the third person, as actors are wont to do.

"It's important to the story that the Patrick Treadway character grow up in the Bay Area," he says. "The amount of culture was vital. The grandmother was a single mother, a powerhouse pioneer woman. The parents supported their son's acting wholeheartedly."


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The grandmother also recognized her grandson's inner light, burning for the magical world of theater.

"If it's possible to be born with that I-have-to-be-onstage-thing, I was," Treadway says. "I did shows in the backyard. I remember my grandmother took us to see 'Wizard of Oz' somewhere in Oakland. And when I saw marionettes at Children's Fairyland, I tried to make them as soon as I got home."

Recalling his stint with CCCT, Treadway says company co-founder Louis Flynn directed, produced, and also played an uncle in the show; behaving the entire time with uncle-worthy nourishing, friendly, sing-from-your-diaphragm energy.

Friendships were forged at the homey theater -- alliances he relied on when he dived from CCCT's warm bath into the onslaught of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

"It was incredible," he says. "I got the role of Edward V in Richard III. I had my head cut off. It was directed by (ACT founder) Bill Ball, so it was a big deal. It was trial by fire."

Treadway says it was lavish, professional, and that Ball was crazy like a genius, but still crazy. "I was a sponge," he says. "I thought this was how all professional productions were handled."

Langbehn met Treadway for the first time exactly where one would expect: Onstage in Spokane, where she grew up.

They've acted together, directed each other, and switched home areas. The chance to bring everything full circle -- her fond memories of the original production and Patrick's return to CCCT -- was "too delicious," she insists.

"The whole play is a memory play," Langbehn says. "The various styles of puppets help to evoke the different levels of memory in Dylan's story. The people he remembers best, his family and friends, are played by live actors; the other people in his story are Bunraku puppets. It's a celebration of gathering, of family, and of shared memories that help to define who we are."

In addition to the Constable made by Treadway, there are puppets by Holly Below, Lennette Lawrence, and Kaela Franz. "Large ones as big as 9 feet high, and small ones only 9 inches tall," as CCCT puts it. "Some are visiting from as far away as Spokane; others live in nearby El Cerrito."

Chicago-based director Jack Phillips imagines the production as a rich blend of Thomas' language, live actors and puppets illustrating the mysticism of childhood memories.

To make the puppets, Treadway relies on memories of his own: "Simple Puppetry," a book his grandmother gave him years ago, and old-fashioned trial-and-error. After sketching, sizing and collecting materials, a mysterious process he calls "hallucinating the finish" paves the way to "lo and behold, the thing starts taking shape," he says.

To accompany the Constable, he's fashioned a "Snow Cat" kite puppet made of silk and sporting a big head, and an "Oystermouth Ogre" on horseback, constructed of foam rubber, Styrofoam noodles, fabric and the obligatory cardboard ("It's cheap and it works!" he exclaims).

Treadway has worked in film, but prefers live theater, where he feels he has more control over the outcome.

"In film, you have little to do with the finished product," he says. "You're one part, and the camera is so close it must be real, but you have to trust the editor and the director."

As a resident artist with Spokane's professional Interplayers Theatre company, he's grateful for the opportunities allowing him to make a living in the industry. Community theater, he says, is even more important than professional companies.

"There's no better place to learn your craft," Treadway says. "And for the audience, they watch and say, 'Those are our people -- that's my neighbor, our postman, my family on the stage.' It's community creating the art and there's no better ownership."

If you go
WHAT: "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is on stage at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays,
WHEN: Nov. 22 to Dec. 15 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave. in El Cerrito.
Tickets: www.ccct.org or 510-524-9132.