"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."
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."
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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.
"People are truly disturbed about the values system that allows a person to shoot someone over a Broncos jacket," says the DCTC's Marley. "But the arts have always been able to raise issues about conscience, about values. If we live in a society in which a person can shoot someone over a Broncos jacket, isn't it our responsibility as artists to start talking about values? Plays do.