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Young cast burrows into the ‘Velveteen Rabbit’

At rehearsal for “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Sophie Pels, 15, of Newton (front), who is the Velveteen Rabbit, and (behind her) Sloane Zwanger, 12, of Cambridge.

YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

At rehearsal for “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Sophie Pels, 15, of Newton (front), who is the Velveteen Rabbit, and (behind her) Sloane Zwanger, 12, of Cambridge.

You could see it as Dickensian child labor, or maybe a very strange gym class.

Most of the young performers in Boston Children’s Theatre’s “The Velveteen Rabbit” spend their time in a 3-foot-high space under the plywood stage, scooting around on their hands and knees in the dark, never getting a turn in the spotlight.

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But they love it.

“This is my first time puppeting, and it hurts your hand and arm, because it’s up high for a long time,” said Sloane Zwanger, 12, of Cambridge, laughing with her castmates. “I’m like pretty much jumping on my knees, so I have like bruises all over my knees . . . but it’s still fun!”

The fifth annual holiday production, beginning performances Saturday at the Boston Center for the Arts, is a puppet-centric version of the classic children’s book written by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson. Adapted for the stage by executive artistic director Burgess Clark and directed by Jay Pension, “The Velveteen Rabbit” tells the story of a stuffed rabbit that hopes to become real through the love of its young owner.

The Boy and three other characters are played by living actors. The Velveteen Rabbit, the Tin Soldier, Timothy the Wooden Lion, and more are puppets controlled and voiced by cast members ages 11 to 15. Designed by Marjorie Tudor, some are made of cloth and operated with the puppeteers’ hands inside; others are wooden and operated from below with sticks and string.

“It’s hard to crawl around underneath the stage and puppeteer and talk and make everything convincing to the audience,” said Sophie Pels, 15, of Newton, who plays the Velveteen Rabbit. “It’s hard to remember that all my blocking doesn’t have to do with the actual geography of the stage, it has to do with whatever’s underneath it.”

‘It’s weird talking to a stuffed animal that talks in front of you. I’m used to interacting with people. I’m still getting used to working with puppets.’

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For rehearsals, the stage had been assembled in an empty side room at the Garage complex in Harvard Square, Cambridge, with big windows overlooking Mt. Auburn Street. With coats piled against the wall and a crew member at a computer to one side, it was familiar turf to the kids, all eager performers and veterans of shows, from school plays to the Wheelock Family Theatre. But puppetry was new to them — sometimes really new.

“During callbacks, I was reading for the Tin Soldier and I was doing all these movements, and Jay was like, ‘Remember you don’t have to move, this is a puppet show,’ ” said Sarah Pollock, 14, of Medford, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘Wait, this is a puppet show?’ ”

“In a way you’d think it might be easier, since you don’t need to use your body or your facial expressions, but it’s not,” said Carter Buchanan, 14, of Newton. “When you’re under or behind the stage, it’s hard to give that same acting emotion and intensity that contributes to the audience’s feel of the show when you’re not up there yourself. You’ve gotta really work for it, so your puppet can display that.”

Building a production around a bunch of adolescents mastering a whole new art form is “not even a little bit” as tough as it sounds, insisted Pension, who is directing “Velveteen Rabbit” for the fourth year. It’s challenging, but not because of their age. It’s “because they’re actors and not puppeteers,” he said. Rehearsals began in early November.

“They come with a set of skills. They know how to stand on stage, they know how to move about a stage as actors, and all of a sudden you take that away from them and give them a puppet, and they’re only actors from their elbows up, or they’re acting just with their fingers,” said Pension, who is also program coordinator for Boston Children’s Theatre.

“That can be a challenge for young actors, and every year they rise to the challenge. And within the first week we’re able to tell the story and work with the ideas of the play, and move on from just the technical ‘How does a puppet move?’ ” Pension said. “In a lot of ways, I think, doing it with a younger cast might be easier than doing it with an all-adult cast, because they’re so adaptable.’’

Acting with wood and cloth costars is a bit of a challenge, admits Samil Battenfeld, 12, of Jamaica Plain, who plays the Boy.

“It’s weird talking to a stuffed animal that talks in front of you,” said Battenfeld, whose previous credits include “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at SpeakEasy Stage. “I’m used to interacting with people. I’m still getting used to working with puppets and how they act.”

Spoiler alert: In the most difficult-to-stage scene, Samil and the Velveteen Rabbit giddily chase each other around the bed, Samil lunging over and over as the puppet pops up from the covers in different spots and then burrows under them again. Don’t tell your kids, but this is accomplished by using four different rabbit puppets handled by four cast members, each under a different corner of the bed.

“There are four Velveteen Rabbits all popping up, so I have to voice all of them in addition to remembering my own time to go up, in addition to staying kneeling,” said Pels. “It’s hard, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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