Child's Play

By Eve Zibart
Friday, November 10, 2006

I grew up in the theater. Actually, I grew up in, under, behind and on the stage -- and not infrequently hanging overhead on the catwalks. I was a prop before I could walk; was famously filmed in my buttercup-yellow tutu completing a pirouette by sitting squarely down in a mud puddle (it was rerun for years as part of a dance festival promotion); lost one ruby slipper down the trap door; managed a soft-shoe routine with a man twice my height (and three times my age); survived succeeding seasons of bluebird blue, clown white and witch green face paint; shot my upper soprano register in college singing through bronchitis (which I got wearing a negligee in winter for "Cabaret"); and learned much of what I know about human anatomy helping performers of both sexes with costume changes in the wings. I pulled spots; built, painted and broke down sets; and handed out programs. I sat through so many rehearsals of so many plays that whole scenes and routines still pop into my head periodically.

I loved every second of it. What kid wouldn't? And that's our point.

Children and theater are a natural match. Kids act almost before they can talk and pretend even before they can read. Imagination is hard-wired into us, and there's no better way to stimulate a child's spirit, or expand his vocabulary, than with make-believe, whether it's "professional" or puppet, musical or mime, children's theater or critical success. And it's not just a spectator sport: Washington children of all ages, from preschool to college, have multiple outlets to play for real, such as acting classes at Imagination Stage, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the theater departments at Catholic University and the University of Maryland, to name a few.

This holiday season, the Washington theatrical community has even more family-friendly productions than usual, making this a great time to introduce your kids to the magic of the theater. Some are seasonal (Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"), some are based on beloved characters from children's books (Junie B. Jones, Willy Wonka, the Little Prince), some are about the realms of magic ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") and one is a rollicking Broadway-style take on the great fairy tale of magic itself, "Cinderella." One even mixes its stories: "Dorothy Meets Alice" and Oz meets Wonderland -- thanks to an overdue book report.

And the Kennedy Center is about to raise the curtain on the world premiere of "Katie Couric's the Brand New Kid," a musical version of the first children's book by the television news anchor. One of the bio sketches in the play's program sums it all up: Actress Cristina Flagg "would like to thank . . . her Aunt Lois for being the one who brought her to her first show at the Kennedy Center, when she could barely see over the seat in front of her."

* * *

The stage is dark at the edges. A boy, his second-grade book bag clutched in his hands, stands alone downstage, while a game of playground softball unfolds in slow motion behind him. "Choose me!" he cries, though they can't hear him. "And there's my hair," he sings mournfully. "Oh, God, I h ate my hair."

This is Lazlo S. Gasky, the eponymous "Brand New Kid," a Hungarian boy who moves to the middle-Americana town of Delasky bearing the dual burdens of bad hair and a foreign accent. James Gardiner has neither by nature, but weeks before opening day, he has gotten deep under Lazlo's skin, or scalp, having bleached his dark hair for the role.

A College Park native and University of Maryland theater graduate, Gardiner remembers the first show that made him want to get onstage: a high school production of "The Wiz" he saw when he was 4 or 5. A few years later, at a performance of "The Phantom of the Opera," when his mother asked whether he thought he might really want to act, "I was like, 'You mean you can do this for a living?' " he says. Instead of going to summer camp, he spent his summers with an old-fashioned traveling tent show that put on children's plays in the afternoon and adult productions at night.

Performing in front of younger audiences is fun because "they're more honest," Gardiner says. "You know when you're losing their attention; they start talking or moving around. Nick [Olcott, the director] calls it 'the Velcro test': If it's not good, it won't stick."

G ardiner also likes that the production, with its blend of real-life tensions and surreal environment -- the sun is a hand-held cardboard prop, as are the trees and stop signs -- speaks directly to a child's perceptions. "Kids need that magical dimension, something larger than life, that moment when the curtains open and anything can happen."

The musical version of "The Brand New Kid" was commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Family Theater, a fine stadium-seat venue renovated from the American Film Institute's old cinema off the Hall of States. It's the second season for the Family Theater, although the Kennedy Center's mission has included children's programs since its inception in 1971: Programs for young audiences and their families, which usually cost $15, drew nearly 267,000 visitors last year, and the center's touring shows were seen by nearly as many children in other cities.

The "Brand New Kid" script and some lyrics were written by Melanie Marnich ("Blur," "Quake"), the music and other lyrics by film and theater composer Michael Friedman. It was quite the adaptation; the book is fewer than 100 lines long, and the musical had to be at least an hour.

Marnich and Friedman knew that all the parts would be played by adults and that the cast would be quite small (just Lazlo, his four classmates and one "adult" who multitasks as teacher, mother, cafeteria lady, etc.), but Marnich says they found that liberating.

"No kid walks around thinking he's acting like a kid," she says. "All kids believe they're grown-ups. So we wanted to be sure we weren't turning out caricatures of kids. We wanted to show them in their entirety, with all the quirks and eccentricities and talents and mistakes. And the music evolved: As we wrote it, it got deeper and more complex, and the story got a little darker and a little sadder. Because, after all, it's a book about bullying and intolerance. These are not pretty things. But we were able to treat it with humor and intelligence and grace."

As late as August, when the show was performed in workshop, Marnich thought it was still "too nicey nice, too artificially tidy, so we started looking for places where we could show a little dissonance, a little disorder." She and Friedman wrote a painful scene in which Lazlo's mother, seeing him so unhappy, asks how she can help, and he tells her he hates all his classmates, they're so cruel -- can she make them all go away? "And she has to tell him, no, she can't do that. It's a heartbreaking thing for her," Marnich says.

There are a dozen songs in the show, nearly double what the creators had originally envisioned. Marnich would send Friedman rough lyrics, and, she says, "he'd take these absurdly difficult lyrics and tweak them and rewrite them into some amazingly catchy songs."

"But it's not like, 'Okay, here's the big numbaah! ' It moves back and forth from dialogue to song to dialogue to song."

And as Lazlo finishes his sorrowful song, the softball game comes to a clanging end -- "You're OUT!"

* * *

In Bethesda at Imagination Stage, a curiously similar scenario is unfolding: Two "boys" and two "girls" are hanging out on the playground. The boys are climbing up and overhead along a pair of monkey bar bridges, and one of the girls is crowing about how fast she can run in her new high-tops. But the conversation degenerates into an argument -- "Me and my big fat mouth," the heroine moans -- and she trails off alone toward home.

This is "Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business," which is being remounted four years after its premiere inaugurated the company's state-of-the-art theater on Auburn Avenue. Commissioned by Imagination Stage and adapted by Joan Cushing, "Junie B." quickly became a staple of children's theater across the country, which is one of Artistic Director Janet Stanford's goals.

All Imagination Stage productions, Stanford says, "touch on real challenges of children, from fitting in to finding one's true self" -- though not necessarily in a traditional way. Stanford herself co-wrote the last show, "Sleeping Beauty: The Time Traveler," which was something like a cross between "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and "Tron," pairing a modern-day video game fan and a Charlemagnic princess. The world premiere of "The Araboolies of Liberty Street," adapted by Sam Swope from his own book about an oversize family of exuberant eccentrics that moves into a staid and repressed neighborhood, is being choreographed by Robert Dion of Montreal's DynamO Theatre acrobatic stage company. Coincidentally, the season also includes a play called "The New Kid," directed by Eric Ruffin, head of Howard University's directing program; like Couric's book, the Dennis Foon story talks about bullying and the difficulties of being a "foreigner," only in Foon's play, the hero speaks English while the "Americans" speak gibberish.

"It's important to hand down the classics, like 'Sleeping Beauty' or 'Cinderella,' but it's also crucial to develop a canon of children's scripts that speak to kids today," Stanford says. "We need to plug into what they're interested in. Look at video games; I'm completely illiterate in that sense, but some of them are incredibly intricate, they play on mythology and fairy tales and music -- and we need to take advantage of that."

Some parents are ambivalent about "realistic" shows for kids. A recent version of "Cinderella" played up her grief at her mother's death rather than showing her skipping cheerfully around the palace, and although the loss of a parent is one of the earliest and greatest terrors of childhood, there were questions about the suitability of addressing such a topic. Sometimes bad words (rather mild ones) show up in scripts, sometimes cigarettes (Junie B.'s grandfather sports a stogie). So Imagination Stage has taken to consulting with a psychologist who writes study or discussion guides for parents so they can use the plays to teach lessons or manners.

"We say, 'The theater is a safe place for fantasy,' " Stanford says. " 'Come and help your kids' fantasies grow.' "

Imagination Stage productions typically last about 90 minutes, with an intermission, and cost $10 to $20. They're geared toward children 4 and older, but that's only half the story: Imagination Stage is also a performing arts school, with classes, or at least sensory exploration sessions, for those as young as 1. More structured classes begin at age 3 and go to 18, and after about fifth grade, when it's clear that some students are choosing to go to acting or dance class instead of playing soccer or running track, they get into even more serious, conservatory-style classes. About 1,200 students are enrolled each semester. The public shows are held in the 450-seat theater (not counting the floor area just below the apron, which is irresistible to certain ages); the student shows are held in the almost equally attractive but smaller 150-seat Christopher and Dana Reeve Studio Theatre.

"Not all of them are going to stick with the theater, but those who have been with us since they were young evince a growth of the imagination," Stanford says. "They don't clam up in school, they're not so susceptible to the strictures of adolescence, they're more prepared to get the leads in high school shows if they want."

Early next year, Imagination Stage is hosting the inaugural EDGE Fest, which will feature teenage performers as well as professionals and will include companies from Russia (a deaf mime troupe), Canada (DynamO Theatre) and Northern Ireland.

* * *

Christopher Piper looks like a pirate, albeit an unusually jovial one. He's dressed in black from head to toe and sports an eye patch, all of which seems perfectly ordinary in the puppet universe, and he talks with the orotund rhythms of a circus ringmaster -- which, considering the underage audience, also seems quite natural.

Piper is the co-founder (with wife MayField and former Smithsonian puppet theater director Allan Stevens) of the Puppet Co., one of two resident children's theater organizations at Glen Echo Park. This particular Saturday, Piper is performing "Hansel and Gretel," and his choice of black clothing is a traditional way of blending into the curtains as he stands on a platform behind and over the stage.

The Puppet Co.'s marionettes are wonderful creations, about 18 inches to two feet tall (rod puppets are even bigger), and their costumes are quite detailed; several that aren't in use are generally displayed around the theater. (The company often uses puppeteer Bob Brown's popular creations in shows as well.) There are no formal seats in the three-year-old theater, which was built specifically as a puppet theater and holds about 250; adults gravitate toward benches along the sides and back, while the kids splay out on the floor. But once the play begins, there is remarkably little noise or movement. Occasionally a child is so into the action that he almost goes onstage (when a "pitcher of milk" spilled during "Hansel and Gretel," one boy jumped up to catch it, even though it was secured by a string), or a toddler begins to crawl toward the action, but generally kids are mesmerized.

"She loves it," says the mother of a 4-year-old. "It's her third time." And at $5 apiece, it's cheaper than a babysitter.

Glen Echo's other resident company is the live-action Adventure Theatre, the Washington area's longest-running children's troupe. (The company's permanent home, in the same arcade building as the Puppet Co. Playhouse, is under renovation; it's in temporary quarters at the Spanish Ballroom.)

Adventure's plays, most of them musicals, are aimed at ages 4 and older and plug into children's tendency to borrow characters from one favorite story for another: Dorothy of Oz meets Alice of Wonderland, complete with the Cowardly Lion and Mad Hatter and the Red Queen and green Witch; the Big Bad Wolf shares the stage with Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood and those three darn pigs all at once, etc. All tickets are $8. Adventure Theatre also offers classes in acting, writing, staging, set design, and voice and diction for ages 7 and older, and some workshops for Scout badges.

* * *

One of the interesting aspects about so-called children's theater is that it is a relatively new phenomenon. (Imagination Stage's Stanford says, "You can't call it a renaissance, because it's never been that big, but there is a 'nascence.' ") One major factor is that the very concept of childhood and children -- as opposed to miniature adults or pint-size laborers -- didn't take general hold of the imagination until the 19th century. It was one of the great contributions of Charles Dickens (among others) to expose the divide between the children of privilege, who benefited from this Victorian sentimentality, and the children of poverty, who were still locked into grinding labor and privation.

It's appropriate, then, that Ford's Theatre has made a Washington family tradition of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas," though it was not written as a children's story in particular. This year's production stars Broadway veteran Richard Poe as Scrooge and as the author himself, who toured Washington in 1842 (before "Carol" was published) and 1867, when he read a dramatic version, which is how this staging begins. The younger children's roles are traditionally doubled to keep the young actors from wearing out; this year's Tiny Tims are 10-year-old Michael Bannigan of Bowie, who also played Tim last year; and Noah Foster, 8, of Annapolis, making his theatrical debut.

There is one other major theatrical venue downtown that offers high-quality children's entertainment, the National Theatre, whose "Saturday Morning at the National" family productions have always been free, thanks to the sponsorship of Marriott. (Tickets are distributed, one per person, 30 minutes before showtime.) Running through the school year, the shows include musical groups, puppet productions, abridged Shakespeare and jesters and magicians.

Weekend staff writer Eve Zibart has the hip joints of a dancer, the disks of an acrobat and the nose of a clown.

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