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Theater: It’s a Family Affair

by Deb Cooperman

Do you ever find yourself home on a wintry weekend wishing you could

find something the whole family could do, but instead you sit on the

couch flipping through the channels humming Springsteen’s "Fifty-seven

channels and nothin’ on?" Or worse yet, watching "Shrek 2" for the

500th time because that’s all the little ones will watch?

Designed to draw whole families into the theater in the dead of winter

– just when some fresh entertainment is most called for – the New

Jersey Theater Alliance’s Family Week at the Theater enables young

people ages 3 to 18 receive free and/or discounted tickets to

performances and special events, including backstage tours, classes,

and workshops at theaters throughout the state. Venues include

McCarter Theater, Passage Theater in Trenton, and George Street

Playhouse in New Brunswick. The eighth annual Family Week takes place

from Saturday, March 5, through Sunday, March 13.

The New Jersey Theater Alliance, an association of the state’s

professional Equity theaters (which use Broadway-caliber performers

and crews), was established in 1981 to increase public awareness,

appreciation, and support for professional non-profit theater in New

Jersey. In 1997 the Alliance created Family Week to make theater more

accessible to everyone, particularly families and young people,

without Mom and Dad having to mortgage the house as they might have to

in order to take the family into New York to see "The Lion King."

Several Family Week events are free to all members of the family,

while others offer kids (18 and under) free tickets with the purchase

of an adult ticket. And while reservations are required, all of the

workshops are free. Most of the events are within one hour of

Princeton.

Dee Billia, the Theater Alliance’s director of marketing, says you

could work your way from Cape May to Teaneck during Family Week,

catching workshops, poetry slams, concerts, shows for young people,

and shows for teens. "They can get a taste of a wide variety of

performances, workshops, and classes," she says. "And it’s not on

school time – we’ve designed it for families to attend together."

If your children have never been to live theater, they are in for a

treat, says David White, associate artistic director and education

director at Passage Theater. "For a child who has been reared on

movies and television, seeing real people – not 50 feet up on a screen

– it kind of bends the mind a little," he says. In theater, White

says, "children are not just viewers, they are participants. There’s a

certain amount of empowerment when you can have a direct effect on

what you’re seeing."

Christopher Parks, education director at McCarter, agrees. "Theater is

a different medium and there’s a different energy. I think it’s

because the audience knows that what they are seeing is for them and

them alone. The people who are sitting in the seats are going to

change every time, and they have an impact on the performances." The

shows that are offered during Family Week often involve audience

participation, Parks said, and that naturally impacts the show even

more.

During Family Week McCarter will be offering a buy one adult/get one

kid’s ticket free to the Sunday, March 6, performance of Blacklight

Theater of Prague’s performance of "Fantasy Travelers," a show in

which live performances are combined with black-light effects,

computer-generated 3D animation, big screen projections, and oversized

puppets. The performance, based on two classics, "Alice in Wonderland"

and "Gulliver’s Travels," is going to be magical, says McCarter’s

public relations director Dan Bauer. "There are certain things you can

take your kids to and they are going to be wide-eyed and transported;

this will probably be the same for the adults too. The whole family

will be talking about it the rest of the day."

Such experiences, says Bauer, are not simply about entertaining. "If

you are introduced to theater as a young person, it sets you on a

journey of learning. And it creates opportunities for entirely new

conversations that you might have with your children."

Passage Theater’s White attributes the fact that theater is not as

popular an entertainment option as it used to be "in part to the

plethora of television and video options, as well as the cost of

theater tickets. Adults don’t always see its potential as an

empowering activity. If a child has an interest in sharing,

collaborating, or expressing themselves, making a movie or being on

television is just too intangible and distant. But with theater, all

you need is people and their creativity and they can create something;

and that can lead to a sense of accomplishment. Every kid needs some

activity to give them a voice. Not everyone can play sports."

White has seen the benefits of theater on children first hand. "We

have a regular program at Passage called Playmaking. It is a course

where we teach kids to write plays. They get a mentor, and we produce

what they have written at the theater. It is not connected to a grade,

but it gives them a complete experience of accomplishment. It is not

practice for something else. These kids know what it’s like to start

something small and create something big," he says.

The opportunity to "taste" a lot of different options without parents

having to make any financial commitment is one of the best things

about Family Week, says Billia. Some of the workshops available during

Family Week include Passage Theater’s "Building a Character" drama

workshop, Sunday, March 13, recommended for children ages 8 through

12; an improv workshop, Friday, March 11, with Dreamcatcher Repertory

Theater in South Orange; and a playwriting workshop at Premiere Stages

in Union. "Step Up to the Mike," at Crossroads Theater on Saturday,

March 12, is a free workshop to build skills in spoken word poetry

with seasoned performance poets Gha’il Rhodes Benjamin and Lamont

Dixon and is expected to be a hit with middle and high school

students. For those who have always wondered how theaters do what it

is they do, Paper Mill Playhouse’s backstage tour is Saturday, March

12.

The Alliance doesn’t deny the fact that Family Week helps develop new

audiences for the theater. John McEwen, executive director, says "we

know that the genesis of adult theatergoing often begins with

attending theater as a child. We believe that by making it easier for

parents to introduce young people to theater and enriching our

children’s lives through the arts, we are building a foundation for a

better world," he says.

And isn’t that more compelling than another night on the couch with

Donkey and Shrek?

Family Week at the Theater, New Jersey Theater Alliance. Saturday,

March 5, through Sunday, March 13. Reservations are necessary for all

events. For a schedule call 1-800-THE-ARTS or visit

www.familyweek.com. Following is a partial listing of events:

The Mayhem Poets, four writers and performers devoted to the power of

spoken word, will conduct workshops and performances at the Crossroads

Theater in New Brunswick on Saturday, March 12, 7 p.m. 973-540-0515,

ext. 10.

Lunatic Fringe, an improvisational comedy group, offers a workshop for

teens at Playwrights Theater in Madison on Saturday, March 5.

973-514-1787, ext. 34.

Shakespeare LIVE! presents "Macbeth" and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"

(both adapted for young audiences) at Shakespeare Theater of New

Jersey in Madison. "Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, March 6; "Macbeth" on

Friday, March 11. 973-408-5600.

Lend Me a Tenor, musical, George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick,

Saturday and Sunday, March 5 and 6. 732-246-7717.

National Blacklight Theater of Prague, McCarter Theater, Sunday, March

6, 609-258-2787.

Tempest, The Puppet Show, Appel farm Arts & Music Center, Elmer,

Saturday, March 5, 2 & 4:30 p.m. 800-394-1211.

Backstage Tours, Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, Saturday, and Sunday,

March 12 and 13. 973-379-3636.

Playwriting Workshop, Premiere Stages, Union, Saturday, March 12.

908-737-4360.

Improvisation Workshop, Dreamcatcher Repertory Theater, South Orange,

Friday, March 11, 1 p.m. 973-378-7754, ext. 2228.

Step Up to the Mike, Crossroads Theater, New Brunswick, Saturday,

March 12, 4 p.m. 973-540-0515, ext. 10

Building a Character, Passage Theater, Trenton, Sunday, March 13, 2

p.m. 609-392-0766.


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