Audiences at My First Imagination Stage shows are capped at 50 (parents not included). Patrons sit in a circle, not in a big theater, which Stanford said is crucial. “They need a smaller world in order for it to feel personal and real.” Children are given props that become integral parts of the story — flashlights that will represent fireflies, for instance — and are often called upon to interact with the actors.
“As we get older, that active [participation] happens in your head,” Stanford said. “You’re intellectually engaged. As a 2-year-old, you’re just as ready, willing and able to participate.”
The 2012-13 season is set to be the biggest yet for the three-year-old program, with more than 200 performances planned. That’s almost four times as many performances as offered in 2009-10, when Imagination Stage developed its first original interactive show for very young children, “Wake Up, Brother Bear!” In the 2010-11 season, the number of performances more than tripled from the previous year, and the program was rebranded as My First Imagination Stage. 2011-12 brought the program’s second original show, “Mouse on the Move,” a remount of which will kick off next season, beginning Oct. 6.
The program started in 2009 with a $65,000 “New Generations” grant, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that provided enough money for Imagination Stage to seriously invest in theater for the very young. When the grant ran out, an Imagination Stage patron offered a $10,000 annual commitment to the program for five years (ending in 2015), an amount that, according to Brett Crawford, Imagination Stage’s managing director, can cover almost one-third of the direct costs of developing of a new work for My First Imagination Stage.
Although Stanford hopes “this can become as full an operation year-round as our mainstage is,” she acknowledged there are financial challenges.
“The downside of this kind of theater is that, with no more than 80 or so people in the room and a $10 ticket price, the box office doesn’t go very far,” Stanford said. To save costs, the advertising is minimal (besides, “the strongest advertising for any program for children is word of mouth,” Stanford said), and she had to let go of her commitment to having live music at the shows.