‘It brought back the child in me’: DNRT celebrates with Dreyfus the Groundhog

Feb 3, 2024

The audience sang along, cheered and laughed as Jackson Gillman delivered the joyous and at-times harrowing tale of Dreyfus the groundhog, who leaves behind the security of his snowy den to explore the mysterious and magical winter wonderland beyond.

Gillman, a Wareham resident, dubs himself “Stand-Up Chameleon” for his talent of smoothly transitioning between multiple characters in his solo acts. His performances include singing, dancing, comedy, lively storytelling and occasionally sign language. 

On Groundhog Day, the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust hosted Gillman’s performance of “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream,” the surreal story of a groundhog named Dreyfus who emerges from his snowy den. 

Over the course of his adventure, Dreyfus tracks an elusive otter, experiences the thrill of sledding, survives hypothermia and later dances with an angel under the aurora borealis. Gillman tailored his story to both adults and children in the audience. 

Dartmouth resident Nancy Jordan described Gillman’s performance as “joyous” and said that his “smooth” and “polished” style drew her into the story.

“It really touched me,” Jordan said of Gillman’s performance. “I was thrilled.”

Over the course of his 45-year-long career, Gillman has performed in cities across the United States at many venues, earning several awards including the Oracle Award from the National Storytelling Network. 

Though Gillman wrote “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” in 1994, it’s only recently that he started performing it publicly. Until lately, he only shared it privately with friends and family on Groundhog Day. Though much of Gillman’s work is geared toward children, “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” includes some heavier moments, such as when Dreyfus narrowly survives a near-death experience after falling through the ice.

Don Clukies of Portsmouth Rhode Island said the performance was much more than he expected. 

“It was a unique experience,” he said of Gillman’s energized storytelling. “There was much more that stimulated your imagination, especially with the animals that he described. You can see it, and you can feel it.”

A “Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” is just one of over 40 shows that Gillman performs. The events of the story are woven together in a dreamlike quality that blends fantasy with true events from Gillman’s life.

“This particular piece is the most surreal piece in my repertoire,” Gillman said.

Gillman’s real-life experiences influenced much of what happens to Dreyfus in the story. Just as Dreyfus falls through the ice in the story, Gillman shared with the audience the time that he challenged himself to dunk his entire body beneath the ice of a frozen pond. 

While studying at the Center for Northern Studies in Vermont, Gillman immersed himself in the area’s sub-arctic ecosystems and spent much of his time in the field tracking and studying the behavior of otters. It was his time spent looking for otters, which often eluded him, that inspired him to write “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream.”

“Even though it’s a surreal, fantasy story, there’s a lot of truth and science behind it,” Gillman said. 

Dartmouth resident Lorraine Granda said the performance was as much for the adults as for the children. 

“It brought back the child in me,” Granda said. “You got into the mode of participating along with him and yet you were anxious to hear what happened to the little groundhog. His use of language was terrific.”

Gillman included sign language in his last song of the night as many in the audience signed and sang along with him. Gillman said he only uses sign language when it enhances the piece. 

“I’m trying to work as much participation into my shows as possible,” Gillman said. “If the piece that I’m doing lends itself to signing along, everybody enjoys it and is more engaged.”

Gillman said the most “joyous” part of performing is when the audience joins in. 

“I made a community out of the room,” he said. “That’s what I love about it.”