Some serious child's play

Major regional theaters are taking children's theater seriously, as plays for young audiences win awards and appear on Broadway.

Teresa Eyring picks up a small cardboard box sitting among papers scattered on her desk and opens it. Inside is a gleaming 2003 Tony Award, naming the Children's Theatre Company (CTC) of Minneapolis as the best professional regional theater in the United States.

For nearly three decades, the regional Tony has acknowledged that great theater happens nationwide, not just in New York. But this year's award was special: It was the first ever awarded to a children's theater.

The achievement has put a spotlight on the CTC and more broadly on professional children's theater. This is a corner of the theatrical world that, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, has gotten no respect, but may now be seeing a renaissance. Although economic times are tough for all regional theaters (the CTC ran a small deficit in its last fiscal year), its artistic director, Peter Brosius, sees today as "a remarkable time" for children's theater. There's been "nothing less than a sea change in the field," he says. "It's a significant historical moment."

Theater for young audiences is growing across the country, agrees Scot Copeland, president of ASSITEJ/USA, an association of professional theaters for children. The group has grown 28 percent over the past decade and today has 120 member theaters.

The field also has become more professional, with more theaters employing Equity actors. Some organizations, like the respected Dallas Children's Theater; Childsplay in Tempe, Ariz.; and CTC, have built or are planning new facilities.

In addition, major regional theaters principally aimed at grownups, such as South Coast Rep in southern California, the Denver Theater Center, Indiana Repertory, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, are now "taking children seriously" by adding productions and programs aimed at young audiences, Mr. Copeland says.

"What I think the Tony shows is that theater for young audiences already has had an impact," says Copeland, who is also producing director of the Nashville (Tenn.) Children's Theatre. It's "not somebody's irrelevant fairy tale done with dancing elves to sell a lot of tickets. Our motivation for doing theater for young audiences is the same reason any artist does theater. And the work that we do can be extraordinarily complex."

Two chairs and a clown

Often, when you mention "children's theater," people think, "Oh, it's not going to be very good: You know, two chairs and a clown," says CTC's Eyring, laughing. "It's gonna be some silly thing. It's not real theater. [But] people come here and say, 'I had no idea! This could be on Broadway.' "

Actually, it has been. Earlier this year, the CTC sent its production of "A Year with Frog and Toad" off to New York, where it received three Tony nominations, including one for best musical. Back home, it produced other world premières, including "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, and "Korczak's Children," a play about orphans in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

Last season, CTC reached some 330,000 young people and families, including 22,000 season-ticket holders, through productions at its 744-seat main stage or on tours and its theater-arts classes for children and teens.

The CTC theater features a glass-paneled quiet room at the back for viewing a production with a noisy child and extra-wide aisles between the rows of its stadium-style seats.

"One thing we know about our audience is that they get up and go to the bathroom," says Jim Tinsely, production manager of the CTC.

The facility was the state of the art when it was built in 1974. But CTC has outgrown it and is beginning a $27 million expansion of its home adjacent to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in a low-income inner-city neighborhood. The addition, scheduled to open in 2005, will provide a smaller second stage (up to 288 seats) and classrooms.

Though he knows it's a cliché, "flagship" is the word to describe the CTC, says Roger Bedard, who directs the graduate-degree program in theater for youths at Arizona State University in Tempe, one of only two such programs in the country. CTC is the leader both because of the large size of its operating budget ($9.2 million last year) and its influence on the field.

The man behind the CTC's success, observers agree, is Brosius, whose bubbling enthusiasm includes a hint of Martin Short-like playfulness.

The Tony award, he says, "was great to let people who just fly over us know what's going on here. It's also important to let people know what kind of quality is possible.... It should be nothing less than the best theater for adults. You're trying to make work that respects [young audiences], never patronizes, never condescends, assumes their intelligence, their openness."

Brosius is trying to change the way people think about theater for young audiences, says Mr. Bedard. While Brosius mixes in popular adaptations of well-known children's stories, such as the "Dr. Seuss" tales, Bedard says, "he's also trying to use that as a platform to broaden people's perspectives about theater for children."

Next spring CTC will première "Snapshot Silhouette," a play it commissioned about the tensions between African-American and Somali immigrant children in the neighborhood surrounding the theater. It just concluded a run of "Amber Waves," which depicts a contemporary Midwestern farm family struggling to make ends meet during hard economic times.

It includes child actors reacting to an off-stage suicide and onstage tensions between parents, and is aimed at older children.

Brosius likens it to "a Greek tragedy" and says the playwright, James Still, shows "tremendous respect for the intelligence of children."

The play depicts a teenage son and grade-school-age daughter who, despite their parents' efforts to shelter them, understand what is happening to the family and want to help.

Also playing this fall at the CTC is "Honk! The Ugly Duckling Musical," a bright, colorful show full of songs and puns, with a gentle message that says it's OK to be different.

The CTC provides a family guide with detailed synopses to help parents and teachers decide if a particular show is right for their youngsters.

"We take our responsibility very seriously," says Brosius, who is the father of two children, one 10 and one 5. "We provide more information to ticket buyers than probably any theater in the country."

With more room, including another stage, on the horizon, Brosius hopes to expand his core audience beyond 5- to 13 year-olds.

Brosius would like to serve preschoolers with intimate productions in the new smaller theater, perhaps introducing puppetry from Europe, where, he says, children's theater is a more respected art form.

And he has a special zeal for what he calls "underserved" teenage audiences, who have few plays being written with them in mind.

Greek tragedies for kids

Teen audiences "drift away [from theatergoing] right when they're facing the hardest part of their lives, junior high school and high school, which are terrifically difficult times," he says.

Last spring, the CTC produced a promenade-style (no seats) version of the Greek tragedy "Antigone," with its timely theme of burying the dead, just as the war in Iraq was ending.

In it, Brosius says, actors mingled with the audience.

"Creon might grab you and dance with you" or "soldiers push you aside," he says, calling it a "very vivid, muscular theatrical presentation. That style of theater had never been done in this town."

Teens in the audience, he says, had "eyes as big as saucers."

What he wants to say to young people, he says, is "You think you know what theater is? We're going to surprise you" by pushing boundaries and seeking out works that "speak to their lives," including plays written by teens themselves.

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