Center Stage's new 'World' is a gamble

Theater's goal of attracting kids to production is anything but child's play

December 06, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

With its new production of "Around the World in 80 Days," Center Stage is launching on an odyssey as daring and fraught with peril as the one undertaken by Jules Verne's fictitious explorer, Phileas Fogg.

For the first time in the venue's 46-year history, the organization is trying to capture that most maddeningly elusive of creatures - young theatergoers. And the troupe is scooping them up one Mud Pie Mojo ice cream cup at a time.

"Never before in recent memory has Center Stage marketed a show to families and children," says David Henderson, the troupe's communications director. "We staged 'Peter Pan' in 2002, but that production was conceived of as the dark, grown-up version of J.M. Barrie's story. This is new for us. We're figuring it out as we go along."

So an ice cream bar operated by Cold Stone Creamery will be set up in the Center Stage lobby. Kids will be given crayons to color a place mat inserted into the program that features a treasure hunt. In addition, families can buy tickets at a discount.

Still, Center Stage officials are aware that the production is a gamble, especially since Baltimore's recent history of supporting family-friendly productions is mixed:

Last season, for example, the seven-play subscription series at the Hippodrome Theatre included two touring Broadway shows specifically aimed at kids - "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Customers complained, so this year, there are none.

Theatre Project had a big hit during the 2007 holiday season when it mounted a British-style pantomime version of "Puss 'N' Boots." Shows sold out. Would-be audience members were turned away. Last year, Theatre Project brought back the same production with the identical cast - and lost so much money that company officials scrambled to pay their bills.

"The low attendance wasn't about people not having the desire to see the work," says Anne Cantler Fulwiler, Theatre Project's executive director. "I think it was because we opened at the height of the recession. Parents had to choose between spending $75 on a toy their kids could play with for a long time, or taking them to see a show."

But not all the stories are dire. The Lyric Opera House decided two years ago to load its season with family-friendly shows - and has thrived.

"We've aggressively gone after children's programming, and so far we've been fortunate," says Sandy Richmond, the Lyric's executive director. 'The Wizard of Oz' was just here in November, and did very well."

The venues might tell conflicting stories of triumph and failure, but a common character pops up in all of them, and his name is Mr. Greenback. Ticket prices play an even larger role in determining attendance at family shows than they do for grown-up entertainment.

In a way, that's not surprising. Parents don't have to purchase just two admissions, as they would for an adult-themed play or musical. They have to fork over the money for three tickets, or more. What's worse, children's seats are not discounted at most Broadway shows.

"Baltimore's pockets aren't quite as deep as they are in some other markets," says Jeff Daniel, executive director of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

"There is a limited demand here for something that's perceived to be a children's show but that has a high ticket price. I've thought long and hard about this problem, and what's difficult is conveying the value of these grand productions. People sometimes don't know the difference between seeing a high-end show at the Hippodrome with a $25 million budget and seeing a non-Equity, bus-and-truck show where the tickets cost $20."

The Lyric once booked big Broadway tours but has stopped. The venue also doesn't present new work, such as "80 Days." Instead, it presents stage versions of such blockbuster television series as "The Magic Treehouse" and "Jungle Jack Hanna" that have streamlined designs and that eschew complicated special effects. These shows are much less costly to produce, and tickets are correspondingly less expensive.

The Hippodrome also hosts touring stage versions of such television hits as "Dora the Explorer" and "Rugrats," and Daniel acknowledges a bit ruefully that this fare almost always turns a profit. "These shows are wildly popular," Daniel says. "Tickets go very quickly, and shows sell out. It's hysterical. Stockbrokers and high-powered attorneys call us up begging for tickets not for some Broadway show, but for 'Dora.' "

Still, Daniel plans to cautiously reintroduce family-friendly Broadway tours into future subscription seasons. He'll wait to book these shows until they've been on the road long enough to generate buzz, and he'll offer discounts for families. In the future, the Hippodrome won't present more than one family-friendly show per season, Daniel says, "even if it's a juggernaut."

"I think there's absolutely an audience in Baltimore for family theater," he says, "but it has to be carefully planned."

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