A kid's-eye view of family life

`IMPROVISATION is a natural form of drama for children,'' said producer John Binkley - veteran creator of children's theater projects - in a TV interview recently. ``It's almost an extension of play.'' As proof, he is offering a weekly PBS series called ``The Perkins Family,' premi`ering Sunday, Jan. 4, 11-11:30 a.m. (check local listings). This rewarding experiment in television theater brings young talent and insight to bear on family issues and everyday living.

Although it's called an ``ongoing soap opera'' and does resemble that all-too-familiar genre, ``The Perkins Family'' has two remarkable features: a cast of seven-to-16-year-olds who play all the parts - including those of adults; and dialogue that is entirely improvised. The show follows the lives of a ``typical, all-American family,'' the Perkinses. It dramatizes parent-child relations, boy-girl problems, how trust is earned, and other issues that should interest many adults, as well as the show's target audience of eight-to-14-year-olds.

What gives the program its special edge, however, is the fact that the spoken lines spring from the kids' own perspective. In episode one, for instance, when tensions develop over Mother's determination to continue writing books, the performances reveal not only how kids see their peers - the children in the Perkins family - but also how they feel about the adults caught up in this type of controversy. The parent-child give-and-take - including some tough exchanges about Mom's priorities - brings a fascinating resonance to the company's presentation of love and conflict between generations.

When John Binkley and TV producer Norman Lear broached the idea of improvisational theater to the American networks in 1979, they got nowhere, according to Mr. Binkley. When he offered it to British TV, however, it was not only accepted but became a smash hit called ``No Adults Allowed.''

The British experience helped Binkley in the development of ``The Perkins Family,'' which he began by consulting with kids in Boston and Houston about story line and character development. Some 2,200 children were auditioned before the cast was decided on, and this was only the beginning of Binkley's long hours of preparation. In rehearsal, the players learn the basic story and contribute ideas. Binkley provides the motivation for each character and helps the cast explore the emotions involved as it is decided how each situation will be approached. The company is also directed physically, so they'll know where to move in relation to cameras and mikes.

But once these guidelines are established and the kids are launched on the open sea of improvisation, they tackle scenes with impressive resourcefulness and a fascinating variety of approaches. Some clearly strive to ``act,'' while others respond more innately to the improvisational demands. Their evocation of clamorous family crises is especially credible, with members talking in a bedlam of cross-purposes and complaints. In the husband-wife argument over Mom's writing career, which rings with adult feelings, Dad wears a frown that truly reflects adult pressures - quite a feat, since the teen actor lacks the life experiences which mature actors call upon for such emotions.

Yes, at times this kind of improvising does create the unfocused feeling of an encounter session, in which the clarity and decisiveness of a well-scripted show is missing. But the series gains a vibrant link to the kids' own feelings, and this provides a tone and meaning rarely found amid the artificialities of standard soap opera.

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