While organizations such as schools, sports teams and clubs commonly have mascots, it’s somewhat unusual for theater company to have one. Unless, of course, you are The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, and its beloved mascot, The Chicken.
The story of The Chicken began in 1991 when the company staged its first production of The Grand Duke. In the opening scene of the operetta, the members of Ernest Dummkopf’s theater company gathered to celebrate the upcoming wedding of two of their members, Ludwig and Lisa. The scene included the company members bringing in food for the wedding breakfast. Mary Mescher Benbenek and Kathryn Florhaug Larsen decided to add a bit of subtle fun to the scene and created two chicken props, using large, Styrofoam balls as bases, to which they added small, Styrofoam ball heads and covered their creations with pheasant feathers, eyes and a beak. During the opening scene, they placed the chickens on tables on stage with the rest of the breakfast food. Later, the company members learned that their plot to overthrow the Grand Duke had been accidentally disclosed by Ludwig. After berating Ludwig for his stupidity, the members ran around the stage, packed their belongings, including the chickens, and rushed off in the hope of saving their lives from the Grand Duke’s wrath.
The following year, the company produced it’s 1992 production of Iolanthe. Kathryn Florhaug Larsen wasn’t in the cast of that production, but Mary Mescher Benbenek was, and decided to carry one of the chickens through a scene in the final performance, just for fun.
As a result, the tradition of The Chicken was born. In every production that followed, The Chicken would be brought in for the closing performance and was carried through a scene by one of the cast members. This tradition has continued for over thirty years.
Over the years, many cast members have had the honor of carrying The Chicken across the stage or through a scene. Some of The Chicken’s many appearances have included peering through the chapel ruins as the men’s chorus sang “Sighing Softly,” during the company’s 1998 production of The Pirates of Penzance, being carried in the arms of one of the trotting chorus men in the overture dream sequence of the company’s 2007 production of The Mikado and being included in the luncheon served to Princess Ida’s faculty and students during the company’s 2018 production of Princess Ida .
Before its appearance in the company’s 1999 production of The Yeomen of the Guard , the Chicken was subtly mentioned by Dame Curruthers in her speech about the prisoners who had been packed into one small prison cell, “Richard Colfax, Sir Martin Poulet, Colonel Fairfax, Warren the preacher-poet, and half-a-score others …” When Wendy Evans, the Artistic Director, heard this line delivered, she responded in exasperation, “They’ve got that damned chicken!”
The set of the company’s 2002 production of Patience included a large pergola, covered with vines, downstage left. In this production, the plan was to build a nest for The Chicken on top of the pergola and for The Chicken to remain on stage, in the nest, continually through the run. When Lesley Hendrickson, the Stage Director, eventually noticed The Chicken nesting on top of the pergola, she put her foot down and The Chicken came down as well.
Over the years, friends and family of company members attending the final performance of a production have made it a game to “Spot the Chicken!” carefully watching for its appearance on stage.
Unfortunately, a sad fate befell both of the original chickens. Mary Mescher Benbenek misplaced her chicken after the 1991 staging of The Grand Duke. Some years later, her children found it, pulled its head off and used it as a ball.
After many years of making its appearances on stage, one year, when Kathryn Florhaug Larsen’s chicken was retrieved from storage, it was discovered that mice had found The Chicken and had eaten away much of the poor thing.
So as not to allow the company tradition to end, Mary Mescher Benbenek and Mary Gregory, quickly crafted a replacement, and The Chicken II, took her predecessors’ place on stage.
During the company’s 2018 production of Princess Ida, The Chicken II was missing! No one could recall what had happened to her after the previous year’s production. In response, Mary Mescher Benbenek quickly crafted another replacement, The Chicken III. Before the final performance, however, the cast member who had taken The Chicken II home the year before, found and brought her in just in time. Chicken II made her appearance on stage while The Chicken III waits, as heir apparent, yet to make her stage debut.
In the end, one might ask if there is a special meaning behind The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s tradition of The Chicken. As the Lord Tolloller would put it, “None whatever!” The Chicken is, as the Lady Jane would say, “Precious nonsense!” The Chicken is simply a part of what makes The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company and its presentations of Gilbert and Sullivan’s wonderful works such a joy, for both its company members and its audience. The Chicken is a beloved tradition, and anything more than that really doesn’t “matter, matter, matter!”
Mary Gregory and Rhea Sullivan, about to go on stage with The Chicken during the final performance of the company’s 2020 production of Ruddigore.
Wendy Evans, our retiring Artistic Director, received a quilt as a retirement gift from the company. The quilt included emblems representing Gilbert & Sullivan’s thirteen operettas, our orchestra, our company, and one emblem representing our mascot, The Chicken!
“I’ve chickens …”