Nontraditional Twist

Tapping International Folktales

Not Hollywood Razzle Dazzle

Family Theater Calendar

All the World’s a (Summer) Stage

Corrections or additions?

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."

Top Of Page
Nontraditional Twist

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,

and sharing.

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."

Top Of Page
Tapping International Folktales

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

and gesture.

Top Of Page
Not Hollywood Razzle Dazzle

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.

Top Of Page
Family Theater Calendar

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

Animal Tales and Dinosaur Scales, State Theater,

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

4 p.m.

Bristol Riverside

Jack and the Beanstalk, Bristol Riverside Theater,

Bristol, 215-785-0100. The favorite story of a boy and his beans.

$6. Saturday, April 17, 11 a.m.

Winnie the Pooh, The A.A. Milne classic from Hedgerow

Theater Company. $6. Saturday, May 22, 11 a.m.

Little Women, a theater adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s

classic novel about the March sisters’ tragedies and triumphs that

bring their family closer together. $6. Saturday, May 29, 11 a.m.

Kelsey Theater

Rip Van Winkle, Kelsey Theater, Mercer County College,

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.

Little Women. Laura Jackson Novia of Lawrenceville directs

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.

Off-Broadstreet Theater

Rumplestiltskin, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South

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.

Jack and the Beanstalk, Favorite fairy tale show, for

ages 2-1/2 to 8. $3.50. Saturday, June 12, 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Peddie School

Phantom of the Opera, The Peddie School, The Richard

Swig Arts Center, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. A musical based on the

Gaston Leroux novel from Theatreworks/USA. $8. Saturday, May 8,

2 p.m.

The Frog Prince, a student show originally scheduled for

May 1 at Peddie has been reorganized to be a traveling show for daycare


Puttin’ on the Ritz

City Green, Puttin’ on the Ritz, 915 White Horse

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.

Villagers Theater

Beauty and the Beast, Villagers Theater, 475 DeMott

Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2710. $6. Saturday, April 17, 3 p.m.

and Sunday, April 18, noon.

Jack & the Beanstalk, $6. Saturday, June 5 and 12,

3 p.m. and Sunday, June 6 and 13, noon.

Top Of Page
All the World’s a (Summer) Stage

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

opportunities follows.

The Arts Council of Princeton has summer creative theater

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.

At the Hamilton Township Summer Theater Camp in the recreation

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.

Hun Summer Theater Classics at the Hun School Theater

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.

Lawrence Township is offering a drama class to its residents

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,

call 609-844-7067.

McCarter Theater in Princeton plans a program of summer

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.

MCCC’s Tomato Patch, held on the West Windsor campus of

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.

The Peddie School in Hightstown has a summer arts program

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.

Princeton Center Stage. The summer clown academy, two

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.

Puttin’ on the Ritz Summer Theater Arts Day Camps. A four-week

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.

South Brunswick Community Education will have two summer

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.

STU-ARTS at the Stuart Country Day School at 1200 Stuart

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.

The Villagers Theater has joined forces with the performing

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

Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments