The Kids Are All Right

If the Generations Series proves popular, Marley says he will recommend that the DCTC board create a separate children's company. In fact, there has already been some preliminary investigation into the feasibility of refurbishing the Lowenstein Theatre on Colfax Avenue to that end.

The only other theater in town with a budget remotely sufficient to its needs is the Arvada Center. But its approach is different from the DCTC's--all of its children's performances are "interactive," meaning that children are brought up from the audience to play minor "roles" in the shows. The adult actors will often speak directly to the children in the audience, asking them questions and getting them to repeat phrases or make sound effects as required by the story. "There is so much that children just watch," says artistic director Kathy Kuehn, a vocal advocate of a hands-on approach. "It's great when they get to go on stage for a bit. And it ties into our education program."

Because Arvada's theater program is so closely geared to that city's school system, every kids' show comes complete with study guides. It's an approach meant to help create curriculum items for teachers, who can encourage children to write letters to the characters in the show, practice spelling lists from the play and engage in discussions of various concepts (what, for example, does "starving" really mean in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?).

The Arvada Center does occasionally develop original scripts. But Kuehn insists that they be stories teachers will recognize (fairy tales, popular classics or books teachers will remember from their own childhood and want to share with the children). The best thing Arvada's done so far was a charming piece of revisionism called What Really Happened Once Upon a Time, in which the wolfen villains of "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs" were completely rehabilitated and the pigs were revealed as cunning real estate developers. Written and directed by Pam Clifton, it was a clever, funny and gentle show that drew laughs from both the adults and the children in the audience.

Nothing at the old Denver Civic rivaled Clifton's bit of pleasant goofiness. That now-defunct institution, however, did produce plenty of children's theater. And its successor, the New Denver Civic, appears dedicated to getting back to kid basics. The theater is deeply involved in a project called the Kids' Interactive Theater Experience (KITE), in which children between the ages of four and twelve get to put on their own shows. The kids are given a script written by a nine-year-old and taught a song, a short dance and a "daring" sword fight. Then they rehearse, get in costume and proceed to stage a performance that is videotaped--all in the space of ninety minutes. It's very appealing to the after-school crowd. The New Denver's main-stage productions, however, won't be interactive. The Gift of the Magi and a new musical version of Treasure Island, scheduled to open this winter, will take the more traditional approach.

Whereas the long arm of the DCTC reaches out to rural communities as well as the metro area, the Civic sees its mission as primarily a neighborhood one. "It's very simple for me to set things up for the kids," says New Denver children's director Dave White. "We're so easy, so approachable, so casual."

The Jewish Community Center's Shwayder Theatre has always been perceived as a community theater, which, roughly translated, means a lot of amateurs getting together to have fun. It's a perception that artistic director Steve Wilson wants to change. He has been busily revamping the Shwayder's children's academy--last year the kids put on five main-stage shows, all with good budgets. But Wilson isn't interested in doing interactive theater, which he believes encourages "acting up" rather than acting. Classically trained himself, Wilson is interested instead in exposing children to the beauty of language.

"I want to do high-focus plays that utterly involve children," he says. "We've become so visual as a culture, looking to the screen for visual stimulation. I want to get kids psyched up for Shakespeare--but first they have to come to the theater and learn to listen."

Over at the Aurora Fox, artistic director Derek Munson has still another approach to children's theater: For Munson, who puts on a mixed bag of interactive and more traditional fare, it's all about fun. Like his counterparts, he talks about the imperative of building the audience of tomorrow, and the Fox does offer children's classes in the spring and summer. But there are no teacher's guidelines to go with them. Last summer the Fox presented Beauty and the Beast in verse, a style Munson accurately predicted would get his audience's attention.

All of these local companies have agendas. All of them are tied in to education. All of their artistic directors are ambitious and opinionated about what children's theater ought to be. And all of them are producing notably different products for their young audiences.

The returns aren't in yet on which of those visions is most likely to survive, or which will truly add to the literature of the theater. But the effort being made is encouraging. And fortunately for local audiences, the companies appear to agree on a few core issues: Good children's theater must not condescend to its audience; the writing must be as clear and clever as the best children's books have always been; and children shouldn't be battered with socialization disguised as behavioral "lessons." Finally, children's theater should encourage even the very smallest children to love beautiful language and expansive ideas--and to develop a better understanding of others.

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