Children's Radio Theater - TV screen of the imagination

The most television leaves to the imagination is how to turn the knob: This is the view of the people at Children's Radio Theater (CRT), who for four years have been producing 30-minute radio shows for kids on WPFW in Washington, D.C.

Doris Indyke - one of the four producers who make up this independent nonprofit group - says ''What I like about radio is that you develop your own very personal image about everything. TV is so real looking, it's so passive.''

In January, Children's Radio Theater will go nationwide on National Public Radio (check local listings for times). They'll bring with them a motley cast of characters, ranging from an emerald prince to an overworked business executive.

One of their offerings is a radio play called ''The Witch's Tale,'' and at first it recounts a traditional version of ''Hansel and Gretel.'' Then the unexpected happens.

The witch is offered the opportunity to give her side of the story about the proceedings at the Gingerbread House. Her tale puts the notorious acts for which she had been blamed for so many years in a whole new light.

The probable point behind it all - don't accept the first story you hear - doesn't reach out and grab the listener by the shoulders. CRT likes to have a message, Ms. Indyke says, but ''we don't want to be didactic.

''Our programs are very uncondescending,'' she adds. ''A lot of time kids don't like to watch children's TV because it talks down to them. If our scripts don't interest us as adults, we don't do them.''

Like another their shows - ''The Sky is Falling Revue'' - ''Witches Tale'' tries for humor partly by giving a traditional story with contemporary slant. It's works on both levels, although ''Revue,'' with all its energy, becomes a bit noisy in parts.

Criss-crossing fantasy with contemporary situations, humor with pathos, CRT has produced a whole set of excellent children's dramas. Some scripts are not without weaknesses, but these are given a boost by spirited acting from performers who take their sometimes whimsical rolls very seriously.

Add to this the fine original music composed for each of the programs, and the result should easily win out over late afternoon reruns of ''The Streets of San Francisco.''

The 13-part series will be joined by an additional 13 programs offered to stations by CRT through National Public Radio's satelite network. It will also be made available by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, an organization made up of independent community-licensed stations.

Part of the series will feature the winners of the ''Henny Penny Playwriting Contest,'' open to young playwrights between 5 and 17 years. Now in its fourth year, this CRT-sponsored event draws the submissions of between 150 and 175 scripts each year, out of which six or seven are usually chosen. This year's contest, the theme of which is ''Life in the 21st Century,'' has a deadline of Dec. 31.

CRT brings the winners to the studio to discuss the nuances of their scripts with the adults who will be acting them, and to watch their radio plays actually being produced. ''You have to see these kids' faces to see what this means to them,'' remarks Ms. Indyke. Their work is treated with respect. We don't mess around with their scripts too much. I think it really inspires other kids.''

The stories range from a remarkably sophisticated one by 15-year-old Peter Trippi about the difficulties of a young career woman, to six-year-old Jessica Lieberman's ''Rabbit Rescue'' about how a couple of rabbits work out a scheme to snare a fox before it gobbles up a rabbit.

In Washington these young authors have been invited to join a monthly call-in program following the CRT airing of their radio plays. The actors and producers of CRT also take part. Remarks Joan Bellsey, the producer who with Ms. Indyke founded CRT, ''It's like a talk show for kids. They're really honest about things. Some, though, are as young as three years and sometimes you have to prod them to get them to talk.''

Producing radio programs for kids is not child's play, the producers say. ''People are not willing to put money into children's programming,'' remarks Ms. Indyke. CRT does get money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities, but private and foundation funding is often hard to find.

Says David Thompson, another producer for CRT, ''There's a great prejudice in favor of television and against radio.''

''A lot of organizations aren't used to funding media,'' adds Mr. Bellsey. ''Many would rather do things with health, education, and recreation.''

The producers who make up Children's Radio Theater spend their time on everything from administration and fund raising to the actual acting. ''We work 24 hours a day,'' says Ms. Indyke. ''But it's wonderful work.''

When asked about what sort of salaries they were permitted to pay themselves, she remarked ''This is a gesture of love.''

Producing CRT is not, though, a job without glory. They've won awards for what they've done - including three Ohio State Awards and a Peabody Award for excellence in children's programming. And their increasing national recognition, they feel, should help with fund raising.

Another production beginning this January on the NPR Playhouse series is directed equally at children and adults (particularly college students). It's called ''The Incredible Adventures of Jack Flanders.''

This entertaining Alice-in-Wonderlandish series, produced by ZBS Media of Hudson, N.Y., features a man who is whisked to otherworldly adventures through the passageway of an overstuffed chair. His well-being is threatened by, of all things, a mustachioed Mona Lisa.

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