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British author Gavin Hill, right, and Cali Ficker discuss cue cards during rehearsal Monday afternoon of Hill's play, "William Gray and the Family Next Door." It will be performed at 4 p.m. Thursday in Litchfield. (Tribune photo by Jasmine Maki)

Play with anti-bullying, anti-racism message to have U.S. debut Thursday in Litchfield, Minn.

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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Dressed as mice, children will share a message of anti-bullying and anti-racism as they perform "William Gray and the Family Next Door" this week in Litchfield.

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British author Gavin Hill, who now lives in Sweden, and his longtime pen pal, Rosie Hartwig of Litchfield, are working together to direct his play for its first performance in the United States.

The performance will be at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Little Theater, located at the Litchfield High School.

With fun, catchy songs and cute costumes, the play, which has been performed in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, tells the story of two mice families who learn to live as one.

A jazz-playing cat named Max chases Lucy Brown and her family into a church, where the gray mouse family lives. When Lucy starts school with the gray mice, she suddenly becomes the subject of bullying. But with the help of a beautiful crow, Lucy teaches the mice that there's no room in the world for bullying.

The lesson really hits home for Hill.

"Bullying isn't just a school thing, it's in the home and in the streets," he said. "I've seen both sides and know there's a lot of pain on both sides."

With the musical help of Martin Lignell, Hill wrote the play in 2002 hoping to teach an important lesson and draw attention to bullying and racism.

"Last summer, Gavin did the story and the music at the public library," Hartwig said. "He got a good response, so community education asked us to do a class."

Fifteen kids signed up for the class and have been working hard to memorize lines and learn the seven songs. Hill and Hartwig put two older girls in front, allowing the younger ones to follow their lead.

All of the costumes, which Hill brought from Sweden, are being altered and resized to fit the kids.

"As little girls, they're just excited to get dressed up," Hartwig said. "If they have the costume, they feel more in character and less intimidated."

The schedule has allowed only seven days of practice before the big performance on Thursday, but Hartwig is confident the kids will be ready.

Hill agreed: "You have to give kids the opportunity to prove they can do something."

Next year, Hill said he hopes to come back and direct his "Lesson in the Jungle."

"It would be fun to do a proper theater production," Hill said.

"Are you keeping me on the team, Gavin?" Hartwig asked jokingly.

The play isn't the first team project for the pen pals. They published "Reflections Upon the Waters of Life," a inspiring book of Hill's poetry paired with Hartwig's photography in February. They also have an art company and blog titled Sweet Conclusions, and they plan to do much more. Someday, they even hope to do a Broadway production.

"It's just about finding the right context to get to Hollywood and make movies," Hill said. "The sky is the limit."

Hill and Hartwig are already looking at the possibility of making Hill's books into Xbox or PlayStation games.

"I always envisioned it coming together full circle," Hartwig said about meeting Hill and working together.

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