LOUISVILLE, KY. — Giggling and smiling, the middle- school kids file into Stage One's auditorium, taking their seats, saving one for a friend.
As the lights dim, the kids settle down. Since they have been coming to Stage One, these children have been taught how to behave in a live performance. There will be very little talking or fidgeting - though laughter sometimes comes at unexpected moments, and applause is enthusiastic.
Children love the theater - once they have been exposed to good performances. (All these children have been here many times.) The excitement of a special event - a wonderful story told with style and heart by a talented group - offers a community experience they will never get from TV.
Great children's theaters are few and far between, and Stage One remains an extraordinary example of what is possible. Directed by Moses Goldberg, the company works closely with the Louisville schools.
It provides plays suited to different age groups, and offers study guides (to help develop critical thinking skills) and workshops not only to area teachers, but also to other arts organizations that are beginning to gear some of their work toward the schools.
Each of the productions I have seen there over the years has been beautifully staged, strong-minded, and entertaining. A recent production of "The Miracle Worker," for example, is a carefully pared-down version of the adult drama - simplified, but not simplistic. The afternoon I watched it with junior high students, a hush fell over the room at that critical moment when little Helen Keller discovers the relationship between water and the hand sign for water.
"The most basic thing is to do good theater," says Mr. Goldberg, "to make sure there are characters the audience identifies with, takes a journey with - characters whose success we enjoy and whose failures we pity. That's one reason we go to the theater - to have an emotional experience, but people forget that that's what children's theater is about, too. We have a double mission: Half is to give the audience an aesthetic experience, the other half is to develop them aesthetically and as human beings. The aesthetic part is a little easier."
Developing a good audience for theater takes planning: "What makes someone a good audience member is knowledge, experience, exposure," Goldberg continues. "So we try to create a sequence of experiences as [the children] are growing up starting at the age of 4. We expose them to the conventions of the theater and what's different between this and TV or the movies. Maybe we are doing a fairy tale or maybe a participation play in which the audience has to turn into berry bushes so Hansel and Gretel can pick the berries when they are lost in the forest."
Children are taught that their presence is significant. As they grow up attending Stage One, they see various theatrical styles. And all the classics of children's literature find their way onto the stage.
Stage One develops most of its own plays or it shares the process with the three other most important children's theater companies (Honolulu, Seattle, and Minneapolis). Stage One receives 400 unsolicited scripts a year, of which perhaps four percent have merit. Goldberg and his staff work with writers, but they also develop their own scripts.
One of their biggest hits so far has been the musical adaptation of Katherine Paterson's "The Great Gilly Hopkins." "We have had an interesting relationship with Katherine Paterson. David Paterson, her younger son, was an actor in our company in the 1989-90 season. He adapted 'Gilly' from his mother's book."
The show was so outstanding that Mary Rose of the New Victory Theatre (part of the 42nd Street reclamation) brought the show to New York for a two-week run in her theater. Critics raved, and audiences loved it.
Another company, Globalstage, has filmed three of Stage One's productions, "Frankenstein," "Pinocchio," and "Cyrano" with crews from the BBC.
These videos, available through Book of the Month Club, offer a glimpse into the theater for children who may not have access to it.
Louisville has been good to Stage One, but Goldberg laments that American society in general fails to understand what the arts can do for children.
"Giving children whatever they want is not [good] parenting," says Goldberg. "But when we give children good art, we are teaching them to think and feel."