‘There’s the bear!” a very little girl exclaims while sitting on the floor of a church hall and watching “Adventures With Mr. Bear,” an Arts on the Horizon show in Alexandria. A toy teddy bear has disappeared behind a stack of boxes and then reappears magically as a live actor. Mr. Bear (played by Jacob Yeh) and his delighted human owner, Jayden (Amanda Forstrom), conjure up imaginary adventures in Jayden’s room, create mountains and jungles, and joust as knight and dragon. The audience of dozens of parents and little ones seems absorbed in all of it.
“Watching my 18-month-old sit still for 30 minutes was the first time I’ve ever seen that happen,” Amy Ostler said of her son, Gill, after the December performance. Daughter Charlotte, 4, was enthralled, too.
The Arts on the Horizon show is part of a growing trend — “theater for the very young” or “baby theater.” Already a thing in Europe, it’s a spinoff of the “theater for young audiences” (TYA) movement but targets the 0-to-6 crowd. At least two other Washington-area companies that cater to young audiences do separate shows for the littlest ones. Their approaches vary, but their directors agree on key elements: Sights and sounds, lights and music rank far higher than story and dialogue, although there is some of that, too. The secret is to keep things moving in short episodes, to give kids a big sensory experience and to inspire creative play — a colander becomes a hat, an umbrella a dragon’s wing. The atmosphere must be relaxed, intimate and interactive.
“Whatever the environment is, we want to make sure it’s welcoming,” said Michelle Kozlak, Arts on the Horizon’s founder and producing artistic director.
Kozlak, who also is casting director for the Kennedy Center’s plays for young audiences, traveled to the United Kingdom in 2010 and was inspired by a nonverbal approach to theater for tots that she saw there.
“I feel like for kids,” Kozlak said, “they’re in such different stages of language development, that having something that’s nonverbal, everyone, no matter where they are in that development stage, can participate.” Back home, she added, “there wasn’t anything for that 2-to-5 age group that was specifically designed for them, so I thought, ‘I’m going to do it myself.’ ” Kozlak presented Arts on the Horizon’s first show in 2011.
At the Puppet Co. in Glen Echo earlier this month, a little girl jumped up and twirled with glee during “Dragon Babies,” one of the troupe’s Tiny Tots shows. Veteran puppeteer Bob Brown used brightly colored plush dragons he had converted into marionettes, which juggled, did acrobatics and wriggled their dragon behinds in short vignettes. Brown provided casual patter, and the children could see him manipulating the strings.
“They get a big kick out of it and there’s nothing scary, which is big for my kids,” said Jessica Reynolds, who, with husband Dave, had brought 4-year-old Bo and 2-year-old Ellie to see “Dragon Babies.”
Pinar Tumel and her husband, Gokhan, who recently moved to Northern Virginia from Istanbul, were there with their 2½ -year-old son.
“I saw him sit for a straight 10 minutes,” his mom said. “That’s concentration that we don’t see at all.”
When Brown and Puppet Co. chief executive Allan Stevens launched the Tiny Tots shows about a decade ago, they decided to keep them at 30 minutes to keep the kids engaged. And, Brown said, “almost all of them are variety format. So it’s all visual. There’s no real story line. So what I’m saying is not important if for any reason they can’t hear.” They also learned to avoid scary villains and to lower the house lights a bit, but never all the way.
At Imagination Stage in Bethesda one Sunday in December, a drowsy little boy crawled onto the stage and appropriated one of the “pillow-fish” caught by actors Jack Novak and Natasha Gallop in the impressionistic show “Aquarium.” The boy snuggled onto the pillow, ready to nap. His father crept out, scooped up his son, pillow-fish and all, and returned to the audience. No biggie.
Kids can chatter about what they see, get up and spin, wander onto the stage, cry. Parents can take them out for a minute to settle down. Or not. They can bring a newborn along while their toddler enjoys the show. At theater for the very young, it’s all good.
“We want everybody to be safe and have a good time,” said Kathryn Chase Bryer, Imagination Stage’s associate artistic director and the force behind its early-childhood shows, which began in 2010.
“We talk about that with the audience before — that you have to get your child so that everybody can have a good time. Like the father who went up and scooped his child up and brought him back,” she said. “Nobody said to that child, ‘You can’t have that pillow’ or ‘You can’t take a nap there.’ ’’
In “Blue,” another Imagination Stage tots show, Inky and Pale live in a blue world with a blue house and a blue garden. A bright red flower keeps popping up, and the pair briefly fall out over whether to welcome it or not.
“I liked it when he sneaked in the red flower,” said 6-year-old Evelyn Meklir. Her father, Craig, liked the interactive bits — the kids get to “plant” flowers in the garden at the end — and he appreciated “the lesson that we need to be accepting of others.”
“The first three years of a kid’s life really help to shape what they’re going to be as adults or older kids,” said Michael J. Bobbitt of Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo, which has entertained kids since the 1950s but doesn’t do separate shows for the very young. Still, Bobbitt is glad that other theaters do.
“Even though they may not remember specifically what happened [in a show], the imprint that we make on them when they’re that age is long lasting,” he said, adding that he also thinks that baby theater offers a new level of parent-child bonding.
Imagination Stage’s Bryer agrees. Theater for the very young, she said, “allows the parents to see into their child in a way that they really can’t on a daily basis because [their kids] don’t have communication skills. . . . I think it’s a real eye-opener for parents to be reminded that even though your tiny one may not be able to express himself verbally, there’s lots going on there.”
Arts on the Horizon: “Nutt and Bolt.” In writer-director Matt Bassett’s show, two comical robots, the analog Nutt (Justin J. Bell) and the high-tech Bolt (Daven Ralston), find a way to communicate through beeps, squawks and music they make on recycled junk they wear. March 8-25 at Arts on the Horizon, in the Lab theater at Convergence, 1819 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria. March 29-April 2 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. artsonthehorizon.org. $9. For tickets to the Atlas, atlasarts.org.
Imagination Stage: “Paper Dreams.” Two “clown-like” creatures discover that mistakes can lead to good ideas in this dance piece, directed by Bryer and adapted from the work of a dance troupe for young audiences in Barcelona. March 11-April 9 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. imaginationstage.org. $14; $5 lap fee for children younger than 12 months.
The Puppet Co.: Bob Brown’s Tiny Tots shows the rest of this month and through March will feature “Penguins’ Playground,” “Tiny Tots Sing-a-Long,” “Magic Toyshop” and “Mother Goose Caboose.” The Puppet Co., 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo Park. 301-634-5380. thepuppetco.org. $6.
Kennedy Center: “Grug and the Rainbow.” Based on the picture books by Ted Prior about a creature who starts life as the bushy top of a burrawang tree but becomes an actual being. From the Windmill theater in Australia, the show features puppetry and “gentle storytelling.” March 18-19 in the Kennedy Center Family Theater. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org. $20.