New York presents its all children's theater

Take 40 enthusiastic young people from ages six to 18. Add a staff of young professional theater people and a producer-director. Add special works by Elizabeth Swados (who also wrote the Broadway show "Runaways"), Charles Strouse (composer of "Annie"), composer Richard Peaslee, and author Kenneth Cavander, and you have the First All Children's Theater.

Stepping off the elevator into a tiny hall, looking for First ACT, a visitor finds four doors. One bears the name of a real estate broker. Another warns not to use stairs except in an emergency. A third is blank, and a fourth has a sign which says, "If door is locked, please knock loudly." Doing so, one is rewarded with the sound of a child's voice asking, "Who's there?"

The door opens on a virtual platoon of leaping youngsters (actually half a dozen), practicing a dance from the current production. Beyond them in the theater another dozen on stage practice lines, while in a corner, clustered around a piano, more learn songs for the next production.

The organized pandemonium continues in the rehearsal rooms. An intern washes costumes in a large sink, while several cast members help each other with upcoming role changes. Producer-director Meridee Stein, oblivious to the hubbub , watches a girl practice a dance step, while two boys coach her.

"She's going to be the Goat," she says. Pointing to one boy she adds, "He's the current Goat, and he," pointing to another, "is a past Goat." As he flashes an impish grin she explains, "He was removed for disciplinary problems. Now he's back in the chorus."

The current production, "The Children's Crusade," is based on the attempt by thousands of children in 1212 to free Jerusalem from the Saracens. In writing it, Richard Peasley and Kenneth Cavander have spent six months talking with the cast, discussing with them what about the Crusade was especially appealing, what types of children would leave their homes, what kinds of feelings they would have, and what it was like to live at that time.

"The types of things the children shared with Dick and Kenneth helped them focus their efforts," says Ms. Stein.

The shifting of parts is common. First ACT plays down "stars," emphasizing the company as a whole. Actors are not singled out in the program, and a lead in one play will likely have a minor part in another. Even interviews with cast members are discouraged.

First ACT began in 1969 after Ms. Stein, who had studied at England's Royal Shakespeare Company and had seen its repertory work, decided to develop a company for young people. She was particularly interested in combining "the Broadway swinging musical extravaganza type thing and the nurturing ability of a repertory company to foster the development of performers and staff." The company, which began performing in the basement of a neighborhood church, now has its own theater half a block from Lincoln Center.

Productions range from "The Incredible Feeling Show" by Elizabeth Swados to "Grownups," which Ms. Stein calls an interpretation of or reaction to adults by children in a gentle, humorous, meaningful way. What they have in common in quality -- something First ACT has had to struggle to prove.

"The reaction to children's theater has always been until very recently, 'Aaah, kid's stuff,'" says Ms. Stein. "The attitude toward children has also been bizarre. There has been either an attitude very negative -- spoiled brat with stage mother exploiting child -- or, at the other extreme, untalented, amateurish, can't be any good.

"What's missing, what people don't know about, is the concept of repertory. This is the environment that trains the creative artist, that takes the talent and gives the technique by forming a partnership with the adult professional."

She says it has taken a long time to get the attitude toward First ACT to be one of respect -- not respect because they're children, but because the work is good.

"I'm interested in quality , in theater that works, that's exciting, dynamic, and executed to the nth degree on a professional level. This is what I insist on in my company. If they don't have that drive and don't share that commitment , we're not going to get along. And we know that very quickly."

Many children cannot take First ACT's incredible demands: work from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Andrea Schwartz, now a theater major in college, was in the company for ten years, starting as a Munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz." She says she never had difficulty keeping up with schoolwork.

"I started when I was 7, so it's always been a regular thing," she says. "It gives you a lot of discipline -- much stronger than a lot of 11- year-old kids have. Besides, a lot of kids just play from 4 to 6. We rehearsed."

"Not everybody wants to do this," Meridee Stein says. "Some kids come here and don't last a day. But for those who do, it's heaven.

"For me, it was always a place to go, kind of a second home. Along with the discipline was the very important feeling of being a family," Andrea says.

First ACT is also helping develop learning programs with schools. An ethinc heritage program, run with the help of the Department of Education and the Fordham University Learning Center, has First ACT training students of Dominican , Jamaican, and Haitian backgrounds to do a series of ethnic heritage plays to make their culture come alive in the city. Another, helping children learn to read through the performing arts, uses plays as a way to explore work done in the classroom.

"We are not an educational institutions," says Ms. Stein. "But by the same token I feel strongly that if you can enrich children's lives by exposing them to the arts, then let's try it."

But her focus is on training young professionals for American musical theater.

"In England, one of the things that struck me was that there were young people working with professionals in a partnership that worked," she says. "They were respected. It didn't matter how old they were or how long this other Shakespearean actor was there, they were working together.

"The point is to get families to come into the theater to observe a great American resource -- talented children -- at work doing material that's not overly frightening or indiscreet, things that are appropriate yet challenging. I hope to get a theater center that marries adult professionals with gifted, talented young people to create fabulous theater. That would satisfy me."

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