AT 10:30 a.m., several bus-loads of school children form a writhing, buzzing tempest as they arrive and take their seats in the auditorium of the Seattle Children's Theatre (SCT). But the field-trip frenzy quiets to a hush as the lights go down.
As if in answer to the children's energy, the play begins with the sounds of a storm at sea. On stage, an artist begins to paint big, vigorous wave shapes on a 10-foot by 17-foot wall of white paper. Constantly at work during the play, the painter helps to set the scene and mood for the ancient legends enacted in ``Just So and Other Stories.''
Local residents have come to expect precisely this kind of innovation from the SCT, which has grown in recent years to become the nation's second-largest children's theater in attendance and budget, behind one in Minneapolis.
``We believe you should be putting the best actors, the best directors, and the best set designers before children,'' says Linda Hartzell, the SCT's artistic director. She says it is only natural that, as books and films aimed at children get stronger, so should theater. ``I've felt all along the acting could be more sophisticated, more challenging.''
SCT draws attendance of more than 240,000 children and adults each year in a September-through-June season. The outreach includes matinees such as this one, which reach 96,000 school children a year, and two touring productions, which reach 70,000 kids.
The theater's new $10.4-million home in the shadow of the Space Needle symbolizes that the community agrees with Ms. Hartzell that young children should be treated as first-class citizens. Money came from foundations and individuals as well as city, county, and state governments.
This year, ``The whole season has been sold out,'' says Hartzell, who was an actor with the theater from 1976 to '79; back then it was located in a more modest setting far from downtown, in the Woodland Park Zoo.
The plays performed here (the season ended June 19) all had original scripts. ``Just So and Other Stories'' is adapted from folk tales from many cultures, drawn together under the Rudyard Kipling-inspired title. The first story portrays a humorous struggle among characters representing eyes, ears, arms, and legs, who are finally joined into one body to prevent them from acting selfishly.
Hartzell's commitment to high-quality productions has an important fringe benefit: ``The parents enjoy it, too,'' says Marc Matsen, who has season tickets for his family. In fact, adults often say they enjoy SCT productions as much as those at Seattle's many other theaters.
``On weekends there are as many adults coming as young people,'' Hartzell says.
Each year the theater stages about five plays with a variety of subjects, from adaptations of familiar stories such as ``Jack and the Beanstalk'' or a Hardy Boys mystery, to more daring efforts such as ``The Rememberer.''
The latter is based on the true story of a native-American girl who is selected by her tribe to become the rememberer of oral history and cultural knowledge, but who finds herself in a white-run school aimed at expunging Indians' cultural identity.
``Just So and Other Stories'' pushes into new territory for the theater as a bilingual play, with sign language as well as the spoken word. The play's director and two of the actors are deaf; the other actors learned to sign for the play. The sign language is incorporated seamlessly into the play so that it is not distracting.
After each performance, actors return to the stage to field questions from children. On this day, scores of kids raise their hands but only a few have time to get their questions in.
``How does the sun go up?'' asks one youngster, referring to an event in the final legend. After explaining, the actors show how a basket (supposedly containing the sun) was hoisted by a wire amid a darkened set, making it appear that a character had climbed a ladder to put the sun back in the sky.
The theater's services don't end with performances. SCT also runs a drama school serving 1,500 kids a year, with 34 courses aimed at various age groups from kindergarten to high school. Among the offerings: musical theater, acting for the camera, stage makeup.
Parents pay $95 to $135 per child for three-month classes, held in afternoons at schools and community centers around the greater Seattle area, as well as at the SCT's home, the Charlotte Martin Theatre. Some scholarships are available.
In a production-workshop class, teacher Don Fleming coaches eight grade-school students on how to perform a science-fiction play they have written together.
``Tense your stomachs. It's got to come from here,'' Mr. Fleming says as he instructs the young actors on how to perform a scene where they must laugh uproariously.
In another scene, he explains how actors playing androids should position themselves so that they don't get between the main characters and the audience.
The kids gave one performance of their play, ``Moving Adventure 937,'' for family and friends on May 18 in the SCT's 485-seat theater.