My First Imagination Stage focuses on theater for babies, toddlers

Blake Echols / Imagination Stage/Center Stage Marketing - Julia Krebs Patterson and Jasmin Danielle Johnson in the January world premiere of “Mouse on the Move.” The play will return in October to My First Imagination Stage, a program designed with uber-youngsters in mind.

Theater, once considered an activity one needed to be at least in grade school to appreciate, has become an increasingly popular form of recreation for the 5-and-under set. Imagination Stage is all about theater for young audiences (TYA), but within the past few years, Imagination Stage has ramped up its focus on shows for toddlers and babies with My First Imagination Stage, a program designed with uber-youngsters in mind.

“Theaters all over the country have realized that their TYA audiences have been getting younger and younger,” said Artistic Director Janet Stanford, a trend she attributes, in part, to the fact that “older children are so heavily programmed in other activities, and parents of younger children are very anxious to get out of the house and find something to do. . . . A 1- or 2-year-old needs constant stimulation and attention.”

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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.

That said, she thinks the program trains toddlers to grow into theater-loving adults, making this a smart investment for the whole theater community. “If [a child] had a fabulous time, and [theater] became part of their imaginative life when they were 2 years old,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Yes, I want to see that show in the bigger theater.’ ”

‘Modern Family’ at Keegan

“August: Osage County” is a play about family.

In the grand tradition of plays about family — “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Death of a Salesman” — this 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is about the uglier sides of family, the way secrets, booze and forced togetherness can spontaneously combust so that no one leaves the room unscathed and everybody is still pulling out the shrapnel on the car ride home.

Keegan’s production, the first in the District besides the national tour, is a daunting, sprawling project: a 13 person cast, a three-act play that will take three hours to perform, a set that calls for a three-story house to be constructed on the stage of the Church Street Theater. On top of that, the play hits all the highlights (or, more accurately, lowlights) of human behavior: incest, alcoholism, suicide, depravity, sex, infidelity, addiction and a teenager smoking pot with her creepy uncle.

“It’s a mammoth play. It’s just a saga,” said Rena Cherry Brown, who plays Violet Weston, the matriarch at the center of the madness.

Mark Rhea, the show’s director, said when he realized Keegan had scored the rights to the play, he quickly went from “this moment of ‘Oh my goodness, yes, we’re doing it!’ to absolute terror. ‘Can we pull this beast off?’ ”

The conundrum of the set was resolved by placing the attic, where two scenes take place, one foot above the Weston house’s second floor, creating the illusion of a greater distance with lighting and blocking.

Brown, who took on another heavy-hitting role last year as a terminal cancer patient in “Wit” at the Bay Theatre Company, believes the characters will feel familiar to audiences, despite the extreme nature of their vices. “Everybody has that family dinner that they don’t ever want to go to again, where somebody sat and told the truth and everybody else was holding their breath saying, ‘Please don’t let this go any further.’ ”

“It’s extremely raw,” Rhea said. “No one is really afraid to say what’s on their minds. . . . I can’t even get through the show without going, ‘I can’t believe these people exist.’ And you know they do.”

Through Sept. 2 at 1742 Church St. NW. www.keegantheatre.com. 703-892-0202.

Spooky Action’s new season

Spooky Action Theater Company’s 2012-13 season opens in October with “Reckless,” by Craig Lucas and directed by Artistic Director Richard Henrich. (You can prepare by watching the 1995 film version starring Mia Farrow). “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami, adapted by Frank Galati and directed by Rebecca Holderness (who directed last season’s “Einstein’s Dreams”) opens in January. T.J. Edwards’s new adaptation of “Candide or Optimism,” originally by Voltaire, will close out the season in April. This Washington premiere will be directed by Michael Chamberlin, whose job will include keeping straight which of the 75 roles his 11 actors are playing at any given moment.

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