by Steven Taliaferro, Guest Editorial
Everyone knows a certain English author who penned a seven-volume book series about a certain boy wizard and his adventures conquering evil with his magical friends in a certain school of witchcraft and wizardry. But I am willing to bet galleons to chocolate frogs; only a select few know about another author from Texas who penned a parody play about the lesser-known classmates of said boy wizard that made it to Off-Broadway and has managed to become one of the most popular modern plays in the USA and internationally.
Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic is a comedic retelling of the Harry Potter saga by playwright, Matt Cox. In it, the Potter years are reviewed by the overlooked students known as the “Puffs.” With loyalty, friendship, and willingness to try, the ragtag bunch manages to see through seven years of puberty, anxiety, school exams, soul-sucking security guards, a basilisk, dragons, a house elf named Bippy, a smack-talking gym coach named Zach Smith, and other challenges of being teenage wizards.
During its three year Off-Broadway run, the licensing rights became available, and the play has gone on to become a popular choice for both school and youth theater programs.
As a fan and a Puff myself, it warms my Puff-y heart to see it being put on by so many schools and youth programs. Puffs is a perfect play for school-aged performers. Playwright Matt Cox, even agrees. In an email interview, Cox said, “It is genuinely surreal. And so so fun. I carry a lot of pride knowing I played a part in increasing the number of teenagers running around dressed as wizards all over the country.”
But what makes Puffs a perfect play for theater kids? I took to the cyber-streets and interviewed a few drama teachers, students, youth drama program directors, and Matt Cox himself, to help contribute a few quotes on why they also share my view on this modern classic.
Whether a school’s drama club is the most or least popular after-school program, the student performers will have no trouble finding a role. There are more Potter characters than anyone can count, and the same can be said for Puffs. Along with parodies of recognizable characters, there are also a few original roles, including the main protagonists, Wayne Hopkins, Oliver Rivers, Megan Jones, and all their friends in the Puff house. Dan Beckman, co-founder of Spring Theater in Winston-Salem, NC, said “It’s hard to find shows that utilize a true ‘ensemble’ cast. Puffs fit the bill perfectly!” Beckmann will be directing a production next summer. The original Off-Broadway cast consisted of thirteen actors playing a plethora of magical characters. The same can be done with more or fewer cast members. Julie Pearlman Gardieff, a former drama teacher for Four Corners Upper School in Davenport, FL, had 21 kids in her 2021 production and loved the show’s adaptability.
When asked what his director’s note would be for a high school cast, Matt Cox said, “With this show it’s important to keep ahead of the audience – it makes for a much wilder ride and helps the comedy.” Puffs is filled to the brim with cheeky, witty, and slapstick humor and, with all of that, how could anyone not enjoy being a part of this show? The students of Cumberland Regional High School certainly had fun. Emma Fylstra, a senior who played the role of Harry, called being in Puffs, “the best performance I’ve ever been in – the audience was roaring with laughter the entire time, we chuckled backstage at everyone’s antics, and all the characters were fun to play.” Rayven Goldsborough, a junior who played Mr. Locky, a Death Buddy, and Baby Wayne Holder, said this was her first time acting and “would recommend this show for beginner actors or even people that want to try theater out!” Not only did the actors have a fun time, but so did the techies. Meadow Willits, a sophomore who worked props said her favorite part of Puffs was the script itself and, “I found the play hilarious watching it at early rehearsals.” She went on to add, “that after Puffs was over I think it inspired a lot of new students to audition for our spring musical.” Matt Cox had a similar comment: “Puffs manages to create wonderful bonds throughout the casts and crews. Our Puffs family keeps getting bigger and bigger, it’s amazing.”
One of the best elements of theater is suspending reality to make room for creativity. New Milford High School Drama teacher, Alessandro Amenta, employed a good amount of creativity in figuring out some of the technical effects in Puffs: “One of the big ones is the soul-sucking security guards and having the doors open on their own so we’re using a lot of fishing line to pull the doors open.” It’s one thing to do a play with a budget big enough to pull off all the grandeur of a Broadway show, but it truly makes a show even more special when the creative team find ways to live up to their title. Puffs will put any techie’s creativity to the test and will pose a challenge, but a fun challenge nonetheless. Kaisey Lucero, a junior at Cumberland Regional High School who worked lights, said she got to be really creative and said, “In my opinion they [the tasks] were a medium, it wasn’t hard but it wasn’t easy.”
Erinn Dearth, co-founder of the Spring Theater in Winston-Salem, NC, had this to say about her upcoming production of Puffs: “I’ve personally always been a huge Harry Potter fan so just being a part of the production and producing it is going to be a big nostalgia trip for my childhood!” However, being a Potter fan is not a requirement to enjoy Puffs. Matt Cox, who grew up loving the series, even said, “I do not believe you need to be familiar with any particular boy wizard book series to enjoy the show. It has always been my hope that Puffs works on many levels for the audience.” That hope proved to be well-realized. Joel Irizarry, a junior at Cumberland high school who played Ernie Mac and Very Tall Man, said he has not read a single book or seen any of the movies, but “You could have zero Potter knowledge and still laugh the night away watching the play.” Another thing to add, in light of J.K. Rowling’s controversial views and remarks of the transgender community, Puffs can still be enjoyed. Ben Harrison, the artistic director of Branch Out Productions in New Brunswick, Canada, who is also the executive director of a mental health advocacy program said “Puffs has captured the parts of Potter that I love – a sense of adventure, a heroic underdog, a focus on belonging and finding yourself. I believe it’s possible to have a positive reaction to art but be aware of the shortfalls of its creator. I think Puffs bridges that gap!”
While Puffs is rife with tongue-in-cheek dialogue and satirical humor, Cox’s play balances itself out with great messages for both younger and older audience members. Everyone walks out at the end of Puffs with a different message. For myself, the message is about dealing with disappointment and learning not everyone will get the same treatment or notice, but anyone can still get something grand from their own life experience. In the penultimate scene, a disheartened Wayne asks the Headmaster, “Why did I have to be so unimportant?” to which the Headmaster answers, “We are all important, Wayne. And unimportant. We are all heroes. In some way. To someone. And as for your story? I think it was pretty cool.” Matt Cox even said, “At its core it’s simply a story about growing up. It’s about feeling your life isn’t as important as others around you. We call it ‘a story for everyone never destined to save the world.’ Which pretty much everyone can relate to.” Alessandro Amenta, of New Milford High School, said the message is how we’re all Puffs. He went on to say “So many of us are not going to save the world and so many of us might feel like a Puff here and there.” However, “in life, being with people who love you and who are friends with you – you can make something magical of that from being together.” Hailey Hollawell, a senior at Cumberland Regional who played a Death Buddy, received a different message from the show: “You don’t always have to have the biggest part, but you are still important.”
So there you have it. Five reasons why Puffs is a great selection for school and youth theater programs. It has a large and flexible cast size; there’s plenty of room for creative technicals; it can be enjoyed by Potter fans and those unfamiliar with the series; it’s fun to do, and it has a universal message for all. If you are a member of a youth theater program deciding what to select for the next production or you’re just looking for a new play to see, consider Matt Cox’s Puffs. A play, Cox says, where “Everyone can find something about the show to enjoy,” and that is very much so.