The Kids Are All Right

"Children's theater" too often equals boring pap--badly written, stupidly produced and amateurishly performed. But it can be magical, inventive and beautifully realized. Children's theaters in Minneapolis, Louisville, Chicago and Seattle have done fabulous work ministering to the imagination of kids while entertaining and even enlightening them--and all without boring their parents. Anyone who knows anything about the future of theater realizes it won't have one if young children aren't exposed to the theater and engaged by it. The audience for art has to be built--especially now that the opiate of the masses, television, is teaching children to be passive recipients of entertainment.

There has been precious little good theater for the younger set in Denver over the years; most of the stuff offered kids has been underfunded, patronizing and dull-witted. But that state of affairs has slowly been changing. The city's theater scene has grown and developed in the past five years, and a steady influx of interesting professional talent has begun to make a difference.

In the Denver area, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities has managed to pull together some very good work (despite persistently bad acoustics), even funding the development of new plays. The Shwayder Theatre and the Aurora Fox Theatre Company have been improving their children's programs, bringing in some of Denver's best directing talent. Compass Theatre Company and Industrial Arts have joined forces over at the New Denver Civic Theatre to establish a teaching pool for a new dramatic academy that opens this winter. Finally, the city's most prominent troupe, the Denver Center Theatre Company, has bitten the bullet and taken up the standard of excellence in family entertainment. The DCTC has just opened its "Generations Series" with an elaborately mounted, beautifully written Peter Pan (see accompanying review), a show that's emphatically different from either the Mary Martin musical or the Disney cartoon.

The DCTC is the only local company that enjoys anything close to adequate funding. But even a lot is never enough when it comes to children's theater--because of the need for elaborate costumes and special effects, kids' productions are expensive to mount and labor intensive. DCTC artistic director Donovan Marley, who has studied the subject for years, points out that only a handful of cities in the U.S. have professional children's theaters at all.

Europe is different, Marley notes. There, top-flight children's work is done by the same major theater companies that serve adults. "It has to do with funding," says Marley. "In Europe, there is a tradition of major government subsidy of the arts." Americans, he adds, are "living in a country that is devaluing the arts--especially when it comes to funding."

Typically, expenses go up and revenues go down when a company takes on children's programming, because theaters simply cannot charge as much per ticket. And if the theater must charge $10 for a $30 ticket, the difference has to be made up somewhere else. That's why the country's flagship children's theaters are well-supported, not just by the bx office but also by corporate sponsors.

The DCTC, which itself benefits from a hefty endowment provided by the Bonfils family, has been serving young audiences for some time. Every year the company buses in 30,000 to 40,000 students for matinees of regular-season shows. The company provides study guides of the plays for teachers, and its highly successful academy program employs actors to teach theater classes to young people. The DCTC also has several large outreach programs that target schools in and out of the six-county metro area.

Still, something has been missing--and Marley realizes, as others in his position have, that the DCTC has an obligation to build the audience of the future. With the new Generations Series, the company is testing the waters in Denver. If families support the effort, a big-budget children's theater at the DCTC may be the next logical step.

"We realize we are serving a lot of young people," Marley says. "What we don't find is adults and young people in the same audience. We don't want parents to drop the kids off and pick them up the way they do in the movies. We want to create a series families will choose together--that will appeal enough to young people but will be intellectually challenging enough to engage adults. That is the challenge we have set for ourselves. Whether we'll be successful or not, we'll see in two or three years."

Marley recalls his own introduction to the arts--the first time he went to the symphony with his parents--as a major event in his life. He speaks warmly of seeing the Salzburg Marionettes, a stunning experience that every member of his family remembers today. "Family memories can reach across the generations, and that's what we hope to be able to do with this series," he says. "Traditionally, people stop going to the theater in their childbearing years, and if theater was strong in their lives before they had children, they will be back in their mid-forties. But we want to say to them: You don't have to stop coming. Bring the children. Make it an important part of your family life."

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