Once upon a time in 1958, Judith Martin and four friends organized a small company to perform simple stories in dramatic form for very young audiences. The props and scenery were utilitarian and essential - paper bags, cardboard boxes and cartons, wrapping paper, and poster paints in primary colors. Plus lots of imagination.
Taking a cue from their decor, the actors called themselves The Paper Bag Players. This year, the Bags - as they have come to be known - are celebrating their 25th anniversary season. Although some of the members have come and gone over the years, the group has remained true to its original purpose, but has expanded its horizons.
Perhaps the most noticeable change between then and now is the audience: children who grew up on the Bags are bringing their children to performances. And parents who once brought their children are bringing their grandchildren.
''Reasons to Be Cheerful,'' the 25th anniversary production showing (shortly to resume touring in New York State), includes a typical assortment of the company's creations. An introductory ''Let's Go, Let's Go'' leads to ''Jumping Beans,'' an old favorite from the repertoire in which Judy (the actors go by first names) buys some green beans from shopkeeper Donald Ashwander. The beans (Brenda Cummings and Jan Maxwell) turn into jumping beans and have to be returned to the store.
The children at a recent New York City performance were delighted with the show. Whenever called upon to join in the refrains of the catchy tunes, accompanied by electric harpsichord, they responded with enthusiastic fortissimos.
The capacity to entertain and involve juvenile audiences has earned the Paper Bag Players their reputation, longevity, and international recognition. The Bags have won numerous awards, including an OBIE (for off-Broadway works), the New York State Artists Award, and the American Theatre Association Award.
In 1967, they became the first children's theater company to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and to perform at New York's Lincoln Center. They have traveled widely in North America, giving more than 200 performances a year and holding workshops. They also have appeared in England, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
The Bags work together 35 to 38 weeks a year. When not touring, the actors return to their Lower East Side studio to develop and rehearse new material, most of which originates with director-choreographer-designer Martin. The other two veterans of the troupe are gnome-like Irving Burton, with 24 years' service, and Mr. Ashwander, a regular for 17 years. Ashwander, the Bags' music man, has won various prizes, including American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers awards annually from 1976 through 1982. His songs for the company have been published and recorded.
The Bags share their creative wealth not only with young audiences (specifically four- to nine-year-olds) but also with young would-be performers. At one time, the group published its skits on cardboards that sold for 2 cents apiece. Play collections have been published by Anchorage Press and, most recently, by Elsevier/Nelson. The latest collection, ''Everybody, Everybody,'' consists of eight Paper Bags sketches, complete with stage directions, prop lists, and piano scores for the Ashwander melodies.
To illustrate how a Bags production is outfitted, here are the principal props required for ''Everybody, Everybody'': two plastic milk crates, one cardboard box (table height), four cardboards, one large paper bag, paper plates with cardboard knife and fork attached and wrapped in a paper napkin, one paper chicken made of stuffed paper bag, one pair cardboard boxing gloves, and one book.
The actors take it from there.
''These plays,'' Miss Martin writes in her foreword, ''are meant for people who simply would like to 'put on a show.'. . . Since everyone usually wants a part, the plays . . . have expandable casts. For instance, there can be many eggs and chickens in 'The Chicken and the Egg.' ''
Thus the fresh and original entertainment that has ''taken its inspiration from the imaginations of children'' has become available in print for the children themselves to produce.