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Eggs-travaganza

By Cory Dobrowolsky on AltoonaMirror.com
March 2010

Mary Gage loved to watch the chickens in her backyard.

She enjoyed observing the "gentlemanly" rooster, his harem of hens, the old "granny" of the flock and the structure and order of their daily existence on a distant lawn in the hills of Western Australia.

Her feathered friends inspired the writer, who now lives in State College, to pen a novel anthropomorphizing the fowls' lives, a novel she recently adapted into a musical titled "Praise the Egg!"

Gage's musical, with music by State College's Richard Biever, will be staged at The State Theatre at 3 and 7 p.m. on April 3.

Gage, a playwright at heart who still voices an Australian accent despite years in the United States, penned her book in 1982 outside of Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

"I was just keeping the chickens," she said. "They led very structured lives. We had a rooster. He had several wives, a harem, and they had a pecking order. The hens made sure they all kept to their order. ... The egg layers didn't hatch; the old granny would hatch the eggs. As (the chicks) grew up, they would go off on their own, kind of like teenagers. In the end, the roosters would be killed, and the hens would become the layers. Life went round and round like that.

"I wondered what they made of it. They had a life a bit like us. I wondered what they thought of things."

Gage's musings led her to pick up her pen.

"I watched them for so long, and I amused myself (by inventing stories)," she said. "They all had characters.

"I had been writing plays, but I had about six weeks off. I thought, 'I will write the story of my chickens.' It just came out."

Gage's novel - "an egg to chicken saga, quite episodic" - was also titled "Praise the Egg," "but without the exclamation point," she said.

It was published by a company in Sydney and won that publisher's award as the best novel of 1982.

However, as the years passed, Gage's novel faded into the forgotten. The publishing company was sold, and the book went out of print. She accepted an offer from Penn State to teach in 1987 - "I had never heard of it," she chuckled. "Perth is as far away from central Pennsylvania as you can get" - and she relocated to State College. After teaching and serving in an administrative capacity at the university for several years, she left and turned her full attention back to her writing.

Then, one day, her chickens came home to roost.

Gage received an e-mail informing her that her novel was quoted at a chicken conference at Yale University by Karen Davis, the president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes "the compassionate and respectful treatment of chickens, turkeys, ducks and other domestic fowl," Davis said.

Davis, ironically, is an Altoona native, whose father, Amos C. Davis Jr., served as Blair County's district attorney from 1966 to 1975. She now resides in Machipongo, Va., along the Chesapeake Bay.

"My friend found the book in the early 1990s in a Washington, D.C., area bookstore," Davis said. She purchased a copy for UPC's library.

"Gage's evocation of the chickens' point of view in their poultry yard struck a deep chord in me," Davis said.

"That was the moment," Gage said. "I thought, 'If Karen liked my chickens, maybe others will like my chickens.' I said I would like to do a musical about my chickens."

Gage chose the musical medium to "celebrate" her beloved fowl.

"It's not farsical; it's more thoughtful," she said. "Music enlarges everything, makes it bigger. 'Pygmalion' became 'My Fair Lady.' 'Oliver Twist' became 'Oliver!' I like musicals.

"It's kind of fun, and the musical is a very American thing. It comes naturally to Americans."

Harriet Rosenberg, a visual arts instructor at Penn State Altoona, is serving as set designer for the musical. "She's very brilliant," Gage said. "She should be in New York."

The musical is being directed by Elaine Meder-Wilgus of State College.

Davis, who also quoted Gage's novel in her book "Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs," will travel back to the area to watch the production.

"I can't wait to meet Mary Gage in person and to see this theatrical production I have so loved and been inspired by as a book," she said.