They'll sing, they'll dance, they'll wear funny clothes -- they'll do anything to entice a child to read.
They are Library Theater, a nonprofit educational production company whose main purpose is to bring books to life, to make them so entrancing that children will beg for more. All over the Washington area, they are presenting "Books Alive," an original musical. And they are very successful, for after most shows the wide-eyed tots leave with armfuls of books.
Library Theater was developed 15 years ago by executive director Cherry Adler. The idea for "Books Alive" came to her when her children were young. "The programs that were in the schools at that time didn't seem in any way to be related to their curriculum," she says. "My theory was that if we could take that love of getting out of class and enhance that with something that they became so excited about, it would literally motivate them to do something. Reading is one of the basics, and I felt it was important for them to get their appetites whetted."
Adler drew from her background in television and advertising to create the program. "I knew that if you could make a product exciting enough and appealing enough for kids, they are going to eat it or buy it," she says. "Books Alive" tries to heighten a desire to read by stimulating the child's desire to recapture the excitement of the performance. "Disney puts out a book that coincides with their movie, and the kids buy it. It sells. Why would kids buy a Disney book on Pinocchio? It's because they want to see what they just saw and enjoy it all over again."
The 55-minute performance tells four stories, using dance, drama, comedy and music to draw the children in. And it is more than just the show. Classroom guides with reading suggestions and vocabulary lists are sent to teachers weeks before a performance, and afterward the children engage in discussions and writing evaluations. "An isolated program is not very valuable," says Adler. "The chances for success are so momentary. At the conclusion of the show, we ask the children to give a recall experience, to write and send pictures to us."
Library Theater has also begun a newspaper, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and the Journal Newspapers, for children to take home. Filled with stories, illustrations, puzzles and games, it helps children to share the experience with their parents and reinforces the link between the live show and the written word. And during the summer the Library Theater, in conjunction with the Children's Services Division of D.C. Public Library, presents "Summer Storybuilders" in local libraries. Using the same theater format, this program concentrates on getting youngsters to use their local libraries.
Library Theater is funded in part by government grants, foundations and corporations such as C&P Telephone, whose vice president, Delano Lewis, is also president of Library Theater. Library Theater charges $265 a show, which is paid for by the school or a business sponsor. These charges account for more than half of its income..
"Books Alive" is a professional act from conception to showtime. Michael Young, who previously worked as director/choreographer for Harlequin Dinner Theatre, is now director, and this year Steven Hayes is writer and Teddy Klaus composer. "We work very closely with the writers," says Adler. "We just don't hand it out. We have an idea." A new show is written each year, and it takes a year to put it together. "We really don't spare anything," she says. "I think when you see our production, you see the equivalent of a mini-Broadway show."
Although Washington is known to be a generally appreciative audience, Adler insists that "with kids . . . if they don't like it, believe me, they do not react like an adult audience. They absolutely have no inhibitions whatsoever, absolutely none. If they don't like it, they'll either walk out, they'll hit their neighbor or they'll just lie down and go to sleep."
Library Theater doesn't get that reaction. "I haven't seen an audience in three years that does not totally respond," says Adler.
"Books Alive" has been showcased at the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap and the Smithsonian. Since its inception, more than a million people have enjoyed the show.