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‘My Favorite Toy Was Dirt’ pays tribute to life, work of Patrick McManus

February 14, 2019

For 26 years, actor Tim Behrens has brought the stories of humor writer Patrick McManus to life in a series of one-man shows.

Before McManus’s death in April at the age of 84, he and Behrens were starting to piece together another show, what would become “My Favorite Toy Was Dirt.”

After McManus died, Behrens didn’t think about putting the show to rest. Instead, he pushed forward with the piece, this time bringing in musician/composer Olivia Brownlee and a six-person orchestra.

“Normally, I would do them alone and I guess after that many years of appearing alone onstage in 1,600 shows, I got lonely,” Behrens said with a laugh.

“My Favorite Toy Was Dirt” will premiere at Spokane Community College’s Lair Auditorium on Friday.

“My Favorite Toy Was Dirt” will also be performed on Feb. 22 and Feb. 24 at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint and on March 1 at the Opportunity Presbyterian Church in Spokane Valley.

The show features classic McManus stories from the other shows, including “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw” and “My First Deer, and Welcome to It.”

“I wanted to make this a tribute,” Behrens said. “It takes the story of Pat from pre-birth to considerations of a finer mortality, so we chart the life cycle.”

The show is billed as Behrens versus the musicians, like “Peter and the Wolf” only with McManus’ stories and Brownlee’s music.

“It’s not a musical comedy, this is a musical McManus,” Behrens said. “The story takes center stage, but the music holds and cradles the stories, hopefully. It doesn’t get in the way of them, hopefully.”

During the production process, Brownlee created a “scorpt,” a hybrid of the score and the script, so Behrens knew when the orchestra would play, and both actor and musicians knew the other’s dialogue.

Brownlee never met McManus, but having counted Behrens as a friend and mentor for years, she was familiar with his stories and the shows.

She likes that McManus’ work is both local (McManus grew up in Sandpoint) and universal and that his stories have a folk feel to them. A folk musician herself, Brownlee was interested in using folk stories as inspiration for folk music.

“It’s definitely a challenge but a really welcome one and a very neat project to be a part of with a legacy,” she said.

Brownlee has experience composing for the stage, but “My Favorite Toy Was Dirt” forced her to flip things around. Instead of the actor taking cues from the orchestra, the orchestra is responding to the actor, piping up now and then with dialogue and music.

As a result, Brownlee has formed a small orchestra that commands much more attention than orchestras usually do in stage productions.

“I 100 percent expect it to change and develop once it’s in front of an audience,” she said. “You can prepare all you want, but once you get the wilderness of an audience around you, it becomes a completely different animal.”

Behrens too is prepared for the show to evolve over the course of its first few performances.

He and McManus used to say that it took between 25 and 35 performances before a show was set. Oftentimes, Behrens said, McManus would pace behind the last row of seats as he performed and would leave pages of edits in Behrens’s hotel room after shows.

“You’ve got to let it breathe,” Behrens said. “(During) these four shows, we will learn a lot. A lot. That’s the goal of having four shows, separated by one week. I purposely picked different venues and different places and you learn more that way.”

“My Favorite Toy Was Dirt” came together over a year and a half. Behrens and Brownlee received a $2,500 grant from the Spokane Arts Commission to get the idea off the ground and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the remaining funds.

The pair asked for $9,000 and received $12,000 from 84 people, some as far away as Austria.

The available rewards might have had something to do with the campaign’s success. As to be expected, pledgers could receive a poster, a ticket to one of the four premiere shows or a CD or DVD of the show.

But Behrens and Brownlee took things one step further, offering those who pledged $100 or more a jar of dirt from McManus’s fictional hometown of Blight, Idaho.

“A lot of people took us up on that,” Behrens said. “I sent out I think 40-some jars of dirt.”

Behrens and Brownlee were touched that so many people were interested in helping them keep McManus’s stories alive.

They themselves were also grateful for the chance to honor McManus and his work.

“The main point of putting this whole show together is to do our best to add one last star on the legacy of Pat McManus,” Brownlee said. “The legacy of Pat McManus is so incandescent. And it comes at a time when people really need a good laugh right now. We could use a good laugh right now.”

“Pat and I used to have a phrase that when we traveled across the country together, we would consider ourselves knights against the epidemic of laughlessness, which seemed to be sweeping the country,” Behrens added. “That’s what we do. Pat sold 5 million books. That’s not inconsiderable. We also completed 1,600 stage plays to just over half a million people in the audience. We’re proud of those benchmarks because the main thrust of Pat’s life and mine is to bring humor and delight to audiences. That’s what it’s about. To take the radiance that’s in and share it out.”