Washington’s theaters are an incubator for children’s plays and musicals

(Scott Suchman/ Scott Suchman ) - The company (L-R: Michael John Casey, Andrew Boza, Sara Beth Pfeifer, Renee Lamont and Ricardo Frederick Evans) celebrates the surprise happy ending to Ferdinand and Danilo's bull fight in Imagination Stage's 2009 production ‘Ferdinand the Bull.’

(Scott Suchman/ Scott Suchman ) - The company (L-R: Michael John Casey, Andrew Boza, Sara Beth Pfeifer, Renee Lamont and Ricardo Frederick Evans) celebrates the surprise happy ending to Ferdinand and Danilo's bull fight in Imagination Stage's 2009 production ‘Ferdinand the Bull.’

A hip-hop, cyber-savvy Pinocchio. A 12-year-old scamp who’s a Civil War hero. The sleigh-driving owner of Dancer, Prancer and Vixen. Between now and next summer, D.C.-area kids will have a chance to hang out with all of these characters, thanks to theaters with a thirst for the new.

In the 2011-12 season, the area’s preeminent forums for children’s theater will hatch a brood of new plays and musicals. The Kennedy Center’s Performances for Young Audiences series will showcase three theatrical world premieres, starting with the space-adventure musical “The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog!” (Oct. 15-29) and going on to include “The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg,” about the aforementioned Civil War scallywag.

(Scott Suchman/Scott Suchman) - Helen Hedman as Viola Swamp in the 2008 Imagination Stage production ‘Miss Nelson is Missing.’

Glen Echo’s Adventure Theatre is cooking up three world premieres, including Broadway playwright Ken Ludwig’s makeover of the poem “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” As for Bethesda’s Imagination Stage: It is prepping “P.Nokio — a Hip-Hop Musical” and co-creating an adaptation of “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” with the Washington Ballet.

Such novelty-packed lineups may not surprise theatergoers who have watched these companies regale the lunchbox set with premiere after premiere. What may be less well known is that many of these pieces go on to have a healthy life around the country, and even abroad.

Over the years, D.C. theater has been an incubator for widely popular youth-oriented fare. For instance, “Miss Nelson Is Missing!,” a musical by writer-composer Joan Cushing (based on Harry Allard and James Marshall’s book), premiered at Imagination Stage in 2001 and has (according to the theater’s tally) seen some 160 subsequent productions — including stagings in China and Papua New Guinea. A British production of another Cushing piece, “Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood” — originally staged by Imagination in 2005 and based on Mike Artell and Jim Harris’s book — landed at Edinburgh’s celebrated fringe festival last year.

The Kennedy Center’s theater-for-young-audiences track record — some 100 commissioned theatrical works since 1977 — includes regular national tours. But regional companies often mount their own versions of shows the center has developed. The musical “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” adapted by Judith Viorst from her own book, with a score by Shelly Markham, premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1998; in the 2001-2002 season, it was neck-and-neck with “Driving Miss Daisy” as one of the most produced plays in the country, according to a ranking published by American Theatre magazine.

The 60-year-old Adventure’s “Just A Dream: The Green Play,” adapted by Sandra Eskin from Chris Van Allsburg’s book, traveled to Singapore and Malaysia, where it played to over 14,300 theatergoers, according to Michael J. Bobbitt, Adventure’s producing artistic director.

Of course, these three companies are not the only local entities to have minted, and sparked broader interest in, shows for children. Just to cite a few examples: Theater of the First Amendment’s 2000 “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales” has caroled at Nashville Children’s Theatre and other venues; Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2008 “On the Eve of Friday Morning,” based on a Persian folk tale, turned up at Oregon Children’s Theatre last season; and GALA Hispanic Theatre’s “Las aventuras de Don Quijote de la Mancha,” a “Don Quixote” adaptation by Patricia Suarez, may surface in Buenos Aires after its world premiere in D.C., which starts Oct. 31.

But when it comes to exporting new works, Adventure, Imagination and the Kennedy Center have a head start, because they belong to a tightly knit national children’s-theater community that constantly shares news.

“The world of professional theater for young audiences in the U.S. is pretty well connected,” observes Kim Peter Kovac, the Kennedy Center’s Director of Theater for Young Audiences. “People know what’s going on: They call each other. They ask. Stuff gets distributed.”

Those distribution channels include both informal e-mails and events such as the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices program, a biennial invitational workshop and showcase focused on developing scripts for children.

It all makes for a high level of awareness. “I’m always checking out what other prominent theaters for young audiences are up to,” says Bruce Miller, artistic director of Theatre IV in Richmond. Miller says he pays particularly close attention to the doings at Imagination Stage and a few other prominent companies: When Imagination premiered “Ferdinand the Bull,” writer Karen Zacarias and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma’s adaptation of the classic picture book “The Story of Ferdinand,” in 2001, Miller heard about it. Theatre IV’s own production romped into existence last year.

There have been over 35 other productions of “Ferdinand” to date, including a nationally touring version mounted by Childsplay, a theater in Tempe, Ariz. Childsplay Artistic Director David P. Saar estimates that, thanks to the national scope, Childsplay’s “Ferdinand” has reached an audience of 100,000.

One of the reasons a show such as “Ferdinand” has been able to gain such traction is name recognition: Parents know the book, and are likely to believe that a play version will be equally family-friendly.

“It’s always harder to sell a children’s show when the title isn’t familiar to people,” says John Glore, associate artistic director of South Coast Repertory, a theater in Costa Mesa, Calif., that has a young-audiences series. Glore says South Coast found it had a blockbuster on its hands when it staged “Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business,” the Joan Cushing musical that premiered at Imagination Stage in 2003 and has had more than 90 subsequent productions. “The Junie B. Jones books are very popular,” Glore observes of Barbara Park’s series about a rambunctious schoolgirl.

“Every time we do ‘Junie B.,’ it’s a hit,” agrees Artie Olaisen, associate artistic director at Dallas Children’s Theater, where he recently directed a more epic Imagination Stage-honed piece: “The Neverending Story,” co-commissioned by Seattle Children’s Theatre and seen in Bethesda in 2008.

The Kennedy Center and Imagination Stage get some payoff for all this activity: They earn royalty income for a limited number of years when a piece they have premiered lands on other stages. But Kovac and Imagination Stage artistic director Janet Stanford say the sums are typically not huge.

“I wouldn’t call it a significant chunk of money: As a not-for-profit, we’re not really in it for that,” says Kovac, noting that the Kennedy Center designates the funds specifically for the training of up-and-coming writers and composers.

“To be honest, I would say the only [show] that has ever proved lucrative is ‘Junie B. Jones,’ ” says Stanford, recalling that the property brought in $20,000 in royalties one year. Shortly afterwards, she says, Imagination’s financial interest in the piece expired.

Indeed, commissioning and premiering new works is more likely to generate red ink than black, because of the additional expenses of paying writers and composers, and then paying actors to participate in developmental readings and workshops.

But there’s an upside. “You have a lot of control over the quality,” Bobbitt notes. Moreover, he adds, “it gives us a chance to give to the industry on a national level.”

“It’s not the most economical way to go, to commission a play,” Stanford admits, “but it’s very satisfying in terms of feeling that we really have an investment in it and a belief in the ideas and themes.”

Kovac says he thinks that new work has been a key factor in turning theater for young audiences into a high-caliber art form. In the mid-1990s, he says, children’s theater in general “was not nearly as good as it is now — and, anecdotally, most of us in the field feel the reason it got better is that we started supporting our writers really strongly.”

Premiering new plays “feeds the field,” he says. “It supports writers — and writers are the lifeblood of the theater.”

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