THE young audience watching "Jemima Boone: Daughter of Kentucky" at Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre sat transfixed, giggled in all the right places (and only in one or two wrong places), and oohed at the appropriate romantic moments. Whispering and squirming were at the barest minimum. The children had a good time, but they also came away with something to think about and to discuss with their teachers about history, race relations, and individual courage.
"Jemima" was written by Stage One's artistic director, Moses Goldberg. It is highly literate, sensitive to cultural differences, funny, serious, and bright. The ideas presented are as complex or simple as the children watching could handle. The acting was generally superb. The theater does eight such productions a year for audiences ranging from preschool through high school. But Stage One does more than entertain kids: It shares the mission, with other first-rate children's theaters around the country, of passing along the culture.
"The same things that make good adult theater make good children's theater," says Mr. Goldberg: "a good script, good acting, good directing, a feeling that there is harmony among all the elements, and characters the audience cares about. There certainly is a difference in subject matter. But the way we approach the theatrical material is exactly the same as in adult theater.... And it starts with respect for the children."
Educators, more than artists, are the ones who ask how culture may be passed on to the next generation, Goldberg says. That's where children's theater differs from most other art forms.
"We do ask that question. That makes us half educators and half artists," he says. "Who is in control of passing on the culture? It's a difficult line for me to walk. I consider myself an artist, and I do have things to say about the world we live in and the culture we're passing along.
"If I don't take enough risks we might as well not be here, if we take too many, we won't be here." Taking on Columbus and the quincentennary is an example of risk, he says. The play called "Foreigners," which he commissioned, tells the truth and is bound not to please everyone, he says.
"It makes us all think about it - what Columbus did that was wonderful, and what wasn't so wonderful. How he was different from other men, and how he was like other men.... It attempts to put everything in perspective. What was happening in Europe was the Spanish and the Italians hated each other. What was happening in the New World was that the Caribs and the Tainos were massacring each other right and left. The Europeans had better weapons, but they didn't introduce hatred or killing. You come out from
the play knowing Columbus made mistakes, did a lot of bad things. But also knowing that mankind hasn't really changed very much, and what we really need is to discover a new world, a world were we can live in harmony with each other."
GOLDBERG is interested in preserving what is best in the classics, and what is worthy to be passed on to children. He chooses new plays or adaptations of children's classics or classic plays that speak directly to the young. In a production of "Macbeth," he made Macbeth 17 - the age of the legendary Macbeth when he began his rise to power.
Playwright Mark Medoff ("Children of a Lesser God") adapted a "Tale of Two Cities" for Stage One. A special program called "The New Generation Play Project" divides a huge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching grants among four important children's theaters in Louisville, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Honolulu. Under the terms of the grant, each theater commissions three playwrights. Mr. Medoff wrote "Kringle's Window" for Louisville, but David Henry Hwang, Jane Martin, and Tina Howe ar e among the playwrights commissioned. These are playwrights who welcome an active role in "passing on the culture."
Stage One's education department is extremely active, too. Not only does their education director, J. Daniel Herring, produce individualized study guides for each play, he includes hands-on theater activities for the teachers to direct in class and "how-tos" for incorporating the arts and writing into just about any lesson plan. He goes into classrooms himself to teach creative movement, improvisation, storytelling, etc. After every play, Stage One offers discussions in which the actors engage with their
"Passing on the culture is part of what we do. We're not trying to make theater artists out of every one," Mr. Herring says. "We're primarily trying to open them up to the art form, to experience and appreciate it. Then, too, we expose them to other parts of the culture they may not have been exposed to - it may be in the socialization of coming to the theater or it may be in the script. We give them a broader look at the world they live in."