Child's play

Kids' theater takes on an important role in developing an appreciation for the stage

September 23, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The afternoon starts with the audience singing "Happy Birthday" to a seemingly nervous 10-year-old and ends with a mob of children in the lobby waiting for autographs and pictures with the actors.

In between comes Pumpkin Theatre's lively, hourlong performance of The Princess and the Pea - a hip rendition of the fairy tale with game show references and broad comic portrayals of the characters.

Welcome to children's theater, where the fare is usually light and audience reaction is both immediate and vocal.

Baltimore may not be a mecca for children's theater, but it is home to several well-established, traditional, highly affordable companies, which are producing this season everything from the mainstay The Wizard of Oz to the hot new show High School Musical.

And while the subject matter is often light, children's theater serves a serious function - introducing young audiences to live stage shows and sometimes igniting the spark that encourages a child to explore his or her own talents.

Melanie Graham, 7, and her 6-year-old cousin, Erin Avery, are waiting in line to meet the princess after seeing their first Pumpkin show. "I liked the part where the queen wouldn't stop talking," Erin says.

"I liked the part where she did stop talking," Melanie pipes in.

Watching the girls' elated reactions, Melanie's father, Maurice Graham, and stepmother, Latasha Washington, are now considering subscribing to the

theater.

Robert and Gwen Merson gave their granddaughter, Cailynn Davies, a subscription to Pumpkin for her sixth birthday last year. This year, her 3-year-old sister, Mairyn, is coming along as well.

"It gives us an opportunity to go to theater, take our grandchildren and see them enjoy it," Robert Merson says. And, unlike TV or movies, he adds, "It's much closer and personal when you're only a few feet away from live performers."

Casting young actors

"There are millions of kids out there, and not only are parents looking for things to take their kids to, good-quality programs, but also they're looking for things to involve their kids in," says Diane Smith, managing director of the Children's Playhouse of Maryland, which, like many children's theaters, offers classes as well as productions. "Not everybody plays soccer, and not everybody plays lacrosse."

While other children's theaters have come and gone, Pumpkin and Children's Playhouse have deep roots - and very different approaches to casting. Both companies hold open auditions, but at Pumpkin - which performs for an annual audience of 12,000 at St. Timothy's School for Girls in Stevenson and is in its 39th season - the shows are presented with a combined cast of adult and child actors. Producer/director Todd Pearthree's philosophy is to direct the young cast members the same way as their elders and to expect the same high standards in return.

"We choose our kids carefully," says Pearthree, whose season-opener, The Princess and the Pea, has its final performances tomorrow. "There's actually a paragraph in the rules where I say, `You are no longer children. You are just short people, and I'm going to treat you the same way I treat the adults, and I want you to work as hard as the adults.'"

At Children's Playhouse - which evolved from the youth theater founded in 1986 at F. Scott Black's Towson Dinner Theatre and now performs for an annual audience of 4,000 at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex - the shows are performed for children, by children. This season's offerings range from Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn, opening next month, to the stage version of the Disney's wildly popular High School Musical in March.

"A lot of other children's theaters are very much into putting adults on stage, but where did those adults get their training? Where did they start?" asks Smith.

"I see what theater does for these kids. I see kids who would not raise their hands in class to answer a question, and they get a couple shows under their belt, and they give a speech. I have had parents who have cried on my shoulder, `This has been the most amazing thing for my child,' and I have letters, and that's why I keep doing it," she says.

Perhaps the most unconventional approach to casting is that taken by one of the area's newer children's groups, Catonsville Children's Theatre, founded three years ago by Nicholas and Barbara Gough. Not only are the casts made up entirely of kids, but says Barbara Gough, "The kids get to be whatever character they want to be. We've had two Annies. We've had two Miss Hannigans - one was a mean one; one was a nice one."

Range of productions

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