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This article by Caroline Calogero was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 14, 1999. All rights reserved
Drama for Kids — Watch that Bean Stalk!
by Caroline Calogero
Hyped up on Nintendo and bored by TV, today’s kids
have been spoon fed entertainment since before they were old enough
to sit up on their own. Stick in a video game cartridge and grab a
joy stick, play a tape, or just turn on the boob tube and let it rip.
With all this at their fingertips, what can theater offer children?
Despite the electronic maelstrom, playwright and theater director
alike argue there is something quintessentially different about the
stage. "The power of the theater is what it makes you do,"
says Joseph Hart, founder of the Shoestring Players, the Rutgers-based
children’s theater company. "Theater should emphasize its trump
card which is that the performance is live. The power of theater is
based on this. It makes the audience a partner not merely a witness."
Kitty Peace Getlik, artistic director and manager of Kelsey Theater,
also stresses the dynamism of live entertainment. "There is an
interaction between the audience and the performers. There’s this
energy that goes back and forth. It changes the show. It molds the
Nancy Seavy of Puttin’ On The Ritz in Oaklyn in South Jersey believes
theater should elicit a reaction from the audience and describes how
a young audience can be involved in a production before it even begins.
Children often start to howl in anticipation of the appearance of
Ritzy the Wolf, show host and narrator for the Ritz Theater’s children’s
productions. "They’re not sitting still for an hour watching somebody
else do something. They’re participating."
Julie Thick, co-founder of Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, agrees.
"Live theater encourages them to use their imagination. It takes
a little bit of an introduction."
Emotionally and imaginatively interactive is how Barbara Pasternack,
associate artistic director of Theatreworks/USA, describes good children’s
theater. She believes that the clarity of the dramatic structure enhances
children’s ability to think critically and write well. In a good play,
the protagonist, his or her goals, obstacles, and the path to resolution
are well defined. "Good children’s theater helps kids learn how
to analyze and encourages creative thinking."
Theatreworks/USA, based in New York City, is now in its 38th season.
The company is exclusively devoted to children’s theater. Its traveling
bands of actors stage plays throughout the country. The company tours
16 shows at once. Theatrework’s production of "Black Beauty"
will run at Mercer Community College’s Kelsey Theater on June 5, and
its staging of "Phantom of the Opera," will be performed at
the Peddie School on May 8.
Motives for producing children’s theater are a bit more
self serving, if equally compelling. Getlik puts it bluntly. "If
we don’t cultivate a live theater-going audience now, I’m going to
be out of a job in 15 or 20 years."
Thick adds, "I think it is important as a theater producer to
always be generating new audiences." She means this to be taken
in the most literal sense. Off-Broadstreet courts the very youngest
of theater-goers, aiming at ages two-and-a-half through seven.
The group was founded by Thick and her husband, Bob. She was a dancer
with a degree in economics; he was an opera singer. Since opening
the theater 15 years ago, they found it was possible to "pool
it all together and make it a viable business" fully supported
by ticket sales. Amazingly, the children’s ticket price of $3.50 has
remained the same since the opening, when they pegged it to the price
of a kid’s movie matinee.
Magnet Theater of Trenton has done three plays for children in its
two-and-a-half-year existence. Mark Jacobson, the troupe’s managing
director who also performs, seconds these views. "It’s important
to expose children to theater because they’re the audience of the
But what kind of theater should the audience of the future view?
At this juncture, the waters grow muddy. There is little disagreement
that the essence of good theater is a good story. "Kids still
respond to a good story. It’s still going to pull them in," says
Sandy Moskovitz of McCarter Theater’s outreach program, which stages
plays in schools.
The professionals stress the similarities between good children’s
theater and good theater in general. "If the adults are sitting
there bored and looking to go out for a smoke, then it’s not good
theater. The big difference between adult and children’s theater is
time. Children have a shorter attention span," says Hart.
Thick adds that a good play needs to be based on conflict, and to
generate excitement. By applying basic morals, you need "to get
the audience to boo or cheer."
For some, the search for a good story means replaying
the oldies but goodies. These companies opt for sticking with the
traditional favorites — adaptations of fairy tales and classic
children’s stories. Bruno Bettelheim, godfather to our modern appreciation
of fairy tales, is cited by the Ritz Improvisational Children’s Troupe
to explain its reliance on the classics. Reflecting this philosophy,
the Ritz’s 1999 season includes "The Emperor’s New Clothes,"
"Cinderella," "The Shoemaker and the Elves," "Little
Red Riding Hood," and "Rapunzel."
Granted, even these are not quite your grandmother’s fairy tales.
A nontraditional twist revamps the familiar characters and plot. In
the Ritz’s production of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," the
animals have failed to keep their own environment clean and want to
carry their trash across the bridge to the greener pastures on the
other side. The troll is costumed to look like the popular troll dolls
of the ’70s. Kids get a lesson in recycling, keeping things tidy,
This modernist spin is offered to audiences in a very traditional
setting. The Ritz Theater, near the Ben Franklin Bridge and I-295,
was built in 1927 and has an old-fashioned look. It still sports its
original marquee and oil on canvas wall murals.
In Hopewell the Off-Broadstreet actors use no scenery, costumes or
props; they encourage their audience to become part of the play by
making the sound of the trees whispering in the deep dark forest or
by pointing out the villain. Off-Broadstreet also sticks to conventional
children’s stories, including "Rumplestiltskin" on May 1,
and "Jack and the Bean Stalk" on June 12. Thick says the group’s
modifications — such as when scary witches become silly twitches
— make them less frightening for the youngest viewers. Another
update for today’s audiences: erasing the proverbial wickedness from
fairy tale stepmothers in consideration of today’s blended families.
For companies who shun the tried and true, children’s theater also
offers the opportunity to create a brave new world. The Shoestring
Players have built a tradition on ferreting out little-known folktales
and adapting them for the stage. "I always hated the damn stuff
because in my experience children’s theater was always Flopsy, Mopsy,
and Cottontail," says Hart, who is on the faculty of Rutgers’
Mason Gross School of the Arts. "Basically, I always thought kiddie
theater was too kiddie. It always seemed to talk down to kids and
it always seemed to tell them the same stories over and over again."
Hart eschews the traditional stories in favor of skits rooted in international
folktales, which he considers an untapped resource for theater. Shoestring’s
standard format is a one-hour performance covering four stories. The
show begins with two comedies. After a break, there is a serious story
and a final comedy.
Yet even the best of these modernist intentions can crumble under
the force of cultural icons. I saw the troupe’s current production
"Tales of Asia" with three of my children. In the midst of
a Javanese folk story, an actor in a red cloak appeared. My three-year-old
turned to me, puzzled at seeing this character. "I thought that
was Red Riding Hood," she said.
The staging of plays aimed at children also varies widely among the
different production companies. Again, the Shoestring Players represents
the minimalist end of the spectrum. They are starkly simple in their
approach to both costumes and props.
At a recent performance of "Tales of Asia," the basic costume
for the cast was matching primary color T-shirts and sweatpants. Turbans,
aprons, or hats were added as needed to flesh out a character. A single
accessory effectively connoted an entire costume. No props were used.
The actors become the scenery when necessary. During the show, they
transformed themselves into a rice pot and rain dripping through a
roof. A lone percussionist played throughout banging on drums, using
gongs, and strumming a sitar, adding both context and depth.
This approach contrasts sharply with what Getlik of Kelsey Theater
terms the mini-Broadway approach of some companies where minimalism
gives way to more lavish costuming, scenery or, at least, a few props.
Pasternack of Theatreworks/USA insists that "scenic elements and
props enhance the theatrical experience."
McCarter Theater does not include children’s theater in its main stage
productions. It does offer several traveling shows that are staged
at schools. These outreach offerings cover the staging gamut. McCarter’s
own adaptation of the classic children’s book "Wind in the Willows"
has traditional staging enhanced by puppets, while Sharon McGruder
puts on a one-woman show using only the storyteller’s tools: voice
Yet even those who do not embrace staging asceticism take pains to
note that theater should not rely on the razzle-dazzle of special
effects and they concede this as film’s domain. Moskovitz of McCarter
Theater cites the on-stage helicopter landing during a scene from
"Miss Saigon" as an example of Broadway’s excesses. This is
theater gone wrong.
Pasternack echoes her thoughts. "We can’t compete with that. We
can’t do the special effects. We can’t even go there. We just have
to do what we do well." Nor should we need to, adds Hart. "In
theater, we’re able to do much more with less."
While the story line or props may be intentionally simple, dialogue
can be a different matter. This can be designed to appeal to both
parents and kids. In Playful Theater Productions’ staging of "Udder
Madness" by playwright Michael Wills at Kelsey Theater, the script
is designed to appeal to all ages.
"Udder Madness" features a cow, named Cow, who needs to return
a bag of marbles to the rightful owner. The work is liberally sprinkled
with literary references and cultural spoofs. The play’s high activity
level and physical comedy are aimed at kids. The comedic riffs target
the adults in the audience. For example, during "Ode to a Spam,"
a rework of Robert Burns’ "Ode to a Haggis," a Scotsman dressed
in a kilt made of newsprint un-cans the chopped ham, passes it from
hand to hand, and plays with the gelatinous coating while reciting.
My kids, who had no idea what Spam or a haggis was until I explained
after the performance, nonetheless hooted with delight at a man in
a skirt made of newspaper playing with food.
As the heroine Cow is released from jail, the theme from the movie
"Born Free" swells in the background — another bone thrown
to the Boomer parents clogging the audience. To simulate a snowfall
over the sitting Cow, the prop manager comes onstage and sifts sparkles
over the actor to the full satisfaction of the spectators. During
the play, I rolled with laughter, as did the six kids ages 3 to 11
I took with me, albeit each age group was struck by a different joke.
Playwright Wills cites the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons
as his source of inspiration for entertainment that works on several
levels. Getlik, whose Kelsey Theater offered "Udder Madness,"
agrees with the formula. "At least one third of my audience is
adults. I don’t want them to be bored to death."
This use of cultural reference and double entendre in entertainment
for children is not unique to the stage. It has been done to death
by Disney in recent films such as "Aladdin" and "Hercules."
Yet Pasternack of Theatreworks/USA cautions against including sophisticated
jokes which only the adults will grasp in children’s theater. When
the grown ups are laughing and they are not, the children in the audience
begin to feel left out, he warns.
Here in Central New Jersey, children’s theater that predates even
network TV remains alive and vital. The stage is still a fresh source
of interactive entertainment for the young set. Getlik of Kelsey Theater
illustrates the enormous and intangible power of a live performance
as she describes a recent staging of "Jack and the Beanstalk."
During the show, 12 children were brought up from the audience onto
the stage and each given an imaginary ax to chop down the imaginary
bean stalk. With axes wildly swinging, the children soon heard the
sound effects signaling that the huge, imaginary bean stalk was cracking.
Fearing for life and limb, all 12 ran off stage to get out of the
way of the impending crash.
Families interested in live theater can choose from
a dozen performances that will be offered from now through June. Young
authors may even send their stories to the theater troupe that comes
to New Brunswick on May 23. The Child’s Play Touring Theater tries
to give "world premiere performances" of work by children
in the community. Send plays about animals and dinosaurs for consideration
to June Podagrosi, executive director, Child’s Play Touring Theater,
2518 West Armitage Avenue, Chicago IL 60647. Include a self-addressed
stamped envelope if you would like to have your submission returned.
For information call 773-235-8911 or E-mail to CPTT@sprynet.com.
15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. Based in Chicago,
the Child’s Play troupe likes to perform animal stories and dinosaur
stories written by children in the community — along with its
regular repertory, also written by children. Best suited for pre-K
and "family audiences." $10 to $12. Sunday, May 23, 1 and
Bristol, 215-785-0100. The favorite story of a boy and his beans.
$6. Saturday, April 17, 11 a.m.
Theater Company. $6. Saturday, May 22, 11 a.m.
classic novel about the March sisters’ tragedies and triumphs that
bring their family closer together. $6. Saturday, May 29, 11 a.m.
609-584-9444. The story of the boy who slept for 20 years, performed
by the professional Bits ‘n’ Pieces Puppet Theater’s nine-foot-tall
body puppets. $7. Saturday, April 24, 2 and 4 p.m.
this community theater adaptation of the classic novel. $7. Friday,
May 7, 7 p.m. , Saturday, May 8, 2 and 4 p.m., and Sunday,
May 9, 2 and 4 p.m.
Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. From the Brothers Grimm,
for ages 2-1/2 to 8. $3.50. Saturday, May 1, 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
ages 2-1/2 to 8. $3.50. Saturday, June 12, 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Swig Arts Center, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. A musical based on the
Gaston Leroux novel from Theatreworks/USA. $8. Saturday, May 8,
May 1 at Peddie has been reorganized to be a traveling show for daycare
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Pike, Oaklyn, 609-858-5230. A stage version of DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan’s
Reading Rainbow book. $5. Saturday, May 8, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2710. $6. Saturday, April 17, 3 p.m.
and Sunday, April 18, noon.
3 p.m. and Sunday, June 6 and 13, noon.
For one child, seeing a play is thrill enough. Another
itches to be making theater, not just watching it. For those in the
latter category, kids bitten by the acting bug, a sampling of summer
programs for different age groups at the Paul Robeson Building, 102
Witherspoon Street. Call 609-924-8777. Pam Hoffman has what she terms
"a child-centered approach to unlocking and keeping alive the
unique qualities of each child, using a creative drama and story approach."
Through acting, movement, music, and visual arts, children ranging
in age from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade will explore a different
topic, story, or perspective each week.
Spring classes started last week, but some places remain, particularly
for kindergarten to first graders, which meet on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m.,
and for second and third graders, which meet on Tuesdays at 5 p.m.
The older children, grades four to six, use theater arts from the
tools of acting (physical and vocal characterization, pantomime, dialogue,
and ensemble), movement, music, to creating scenery, props and costumes/masks.
Some places may remain on Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m. Spring classes go
through the second week in June and the $160 fee can be prorated.
Summer classes cost $135 for half-day sessions and $250 for full-day.
Ages four to six explore "the Idea of Royalty" in classic
fairy and folk tales in morning classes from June 21 to 25. Using
Maurice Sendak’s "Where the Wild Things Are," children ages
seven to nine will create an original theater piece in afternoon sessions
from June 21 to 25. Youngsters ages 9 to 12 have three all-day choices:
During the week of July 5, they create an original piece based on
Chris Van Allsburg’s "Jumanji." On July 12 they work with
the tale of Robin Hood on "Into Sherwood Forest." T.S. Eliot’s
poetry will be the inspiration for "Eliot’s Cats" from August
23 to 27.
building at 320 Scully Avenue, working actors and directors from Encore
Entertainment will teach improvisation, voice, character study, movement,
and make-up to youngsters from ages 7 to 16. One-week sessions, culminating
in the performance of an original show, start August 9 and August
16. Anyone may register, but newcomers need to start with the first
session. Cost: $60 per week. Call 609-890-3684.
at 176 Edgerstoune Road will be directed by Julia Ohm. This four-week
intensive program, from June 30 to July 23, is for ages 12 to 18,
and will culminate in a fully executed production. Students not only
perform but also assist in all technical aspects of the selected classical
piece. This would include everything about production from design
and budgeting to actual performance. Day students pay $645 and the
resident program costs $2,900. Call 609-921-7600.
entering the fourth to eighth grades. The half-day classes run for
two weeks. Three of these sessions are planned. Students will work
on creating a one-act monologue. This class is priced at $50 for registrations
prior to May 15; and $60 for later registrations. For information,
classes for grades kindergarten to 12. Jeffrey MacCulloch teaches
a six-session Wednesday afternoon class in the craft of play writing
for grades seven to twelve ($100). Pamela Ward directs fourth through
eighth graders in morning rehearsals (August 2 to 13) for an original
children’s musical, "Androcles and the Lion." The 10 90-minute
classes cost $140.
In the McCarter Summer Youth Conservatory, Tuesdays to Thursdays from
June 29 to July 22, Bill Reeves teaches kindergarten and first grade
students and Mark Murphy takes the second and third graders. Both
classes have 12 75-minute sessions for $135. Fourth to twelfth graders
get 90-minute sessions for $150.
Auditions are May 8, 11, and 13 for high school students to participate
in "A Classic Summer ’99," with Christopher Parks as director
for six public performances of "A Midsummer Nights Dream."
It costs $850 but scholarships are available. For additional information,
call 609-683-9100, extension 6166.
Mercer County Community College, offers a summer arts program incorporating
acting, dance, visual arts and vocal music for older children. The
program is now in its 26th year and offers a four-week session for
children entering grades eight to twelve and a three-week session
for grades five to eight. Students select a "major" in either
performing or the visual arts and spend their mornings in classes
working on their chosen concentrations. Afternoons are devoted to
"electives" in other areas. The four-week session costs $475
and the three-week session is $375. Call 609-586-4800, extension 3566,
for more information.
for ages 8 to 15. For the younger set, students ages 8 to 11, there
is Green Apple Theater, a week-long drama and music camp. Enrollment
is limited to 20 students for each of the four sessions. The fee is
$235. Summer Theater Camp bills itself as a professional training
program for ages 11 to 15. During the two-week program, classes are
offered in acting, musical theater, and dance. The finale for each
of the two Summer Theater Camp sessions offered is a Saturday morning
showcase performance. The fee is $425. Applications for either program
are available by calling 609-490-7550.
all-day three-week sessions starting June 21 and July 12, is for fourth
to ninth grade students. Professional clowns, actors, and other performing
artists teach mime, pie-throwing, slapstick and pratfalls, clown gags,
make-up, unicycling, juggling, stilt-walking, costuming, tumbling,
and acrobatics. Cost is $650. Call director Thomas von Oehsen at 609-921-0012.
session, July 19 to August 13, is at the Ritz Theater, 915 White Horse
Pike, Oaklyn. The camps will involve intensive training in mounting
a full production and honing abilities in singing, dancing, acting,
and creativity. Grades five to eight pay $400 and for grades 9 to
12 the cost is $290. Call 609-858-5230.
programs in theater arts. Drama Explorations for grades three to six
will run from July 19 to July 30. The camp will include theater games
and improvisations. The cost is $150. Theater Workshop is aimed at
grades seven to nine and runs June 28 to July 16. A play will be presented
on the final day. The cost is $199. Call 732-940-2000, extension 269.
Road. Directed by Jan Moule for children ages 6 to 13, this performing
and visual arts camp celebrates creativity and self-expression and
will focus on Asia this year. Artists, dancers, composers, and actors
from the area will teach and give workshops. Classes from June 15
to July 2 cost $195 per week. Call 609-921-2330.
arts department at the Somerset County Vocational and Technical High
School to offer theater arts training — acting, dance, voice,
musical theater, and production arts — for students ages 6 to
17, and each session culminates in a performance. Two three-week morning
sessions at the theater on DeMott Lane for ages 6 to 8 cost $335.
Two three-week, all-day sessions for ages 8 to 12 cost $575, and high-school
age youth can take the "performing arts conservatory" at the
high school site, also for $575. Every participant gets a professional
black and white head shot, a full-color cast photo, and a "company"
T-shirt. Extended care is available. Call 732-873-3009.
— Caroline Calogero
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