- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007

CHICAGO

Patrons’ reviews paper one wall in the theater office. Some are written on postcards, others on lined notebook paper.

“A toad-ally awesome production!” declares one critique. Another is titled, “A 5th-grader’s review of ‘Frog and Toad.’ ”

The Chicago Children's Theatre, now in its second season, is among a growing number of theaters around the country staging professional productions specifically for children and teens.

While cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Dallas have had children’s theaters for decades, some theaters that once catered only to adults now are finding a new market by producing works that appeal to families.

As a result, experts say, the quality and quantity of productions have increased in recent years. They’re drawing top-notch directors, playwrights and set designers, and the roles are often filled by professional adult actors.

In other words, children’s theater is growing up.

“We are now very much more a part of the theater family,” says David Saar, the artistic director and founder of Childsplay in Tempe, Ariz. “We were once the stepchild.”

Some professional children’s theaters estimate that they reach hundreds of thousands of young people each year, including through outreach efforts in schools and neighborhoods.

“We are, in our communities, some of the major arts institutions,” says Mr. Saar, whose theater expects to move into a new $67 million performing arts center in Tempe this fall. It’s quite a change from when the group was founded in 1977, performing its works in an old school cafeteria where Mr. Saar would sit near the circuit breaker to flip it back on after outages.

Those involved in children’s theater point to several reasons for the newfound respect and interest.

Parents worried that their children spend too much time alone in front of the television, computer or video games want to expose them to live performance and are looking for shared family experiences that will inspire discussion afterward.

Also, the entire medium was validated in 2003 when the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis became the first theater for young people to win a regional theater Tony Award.

“It made some communities stand up and take notice and say, ‘Hmm. Why don’t we have one of these?’ ” says Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a trade organization, and former managing director of the Minneapolis children’s theater.

About 30 of her organization’s 450 members perform only children’s theater, and more than 200 indicated in a recent survey that they devote at least 15 percent of their programming to theater for young audiences or youth programs, she says.

Leaders in live theater also have realized, Miss Eyring says, that when young people are exposed to the arts at an early age, they are more likely to grow up into adults that attend arts events.

Lee Obrzut, 38, from the Chicago suburb of Addison, brought her three children to the Chicago Children's Theatre’s most recent show, “Go, Dog, Go!” performed under a 50-foot-tall, yellow-and-pink circus tent in the lakefront Grant Park. It was a riot of colors and loopy action, and many of the kids in the audience drove themselves silly with laughter.

Miss Obrzut says that she feels it’s important to expose her children to live entertainment and that they always look forward to it.

Her 9-year-old son, Nicholas, provides a positive review of “Go, Dog, Go!” “It’s got a lot of action in it,” he says. “Very exciting.”

Adaptations of storybook classics or fairy tales still are guaranteed to lure audiences, but many children’s theaters also tackle plays with challenging themes.

The Chicago Children's Theatre is developing a play about Rosa Parks; others have produced plays about the plight of young Sudanese refugees and an 8-year-old boy with hemophilia and AIDS.

With a budget this year of $2.5 million, the Chicago theater so far has produced four works, including an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine,” which the Chicago Sun-Times thought might confuse “even the most sophisticated young audience member.”

That, of course, is one of the main challenges for children’s theater: to find a balance of works for various age ranges and then to communicate the intended audience to those buying the tickets.

“A lot of people think that children’s theater is whatever their child is ready to handle,” says Jacqueline Russell, co-founder of Chicago Children's Theatre.

The theater’s next show, opening July 20, is “Honus and Me,” about a boy who meets baseball legend Honus Wagner. Because the children’s theater does not have a permanent home — that’s in a three-to-five-year vision, Miss Russell says — it will be performed at the Goodman Theatre downtown.

With the addition of the Chicago Children’s Theater, there now are several theaters in the metropolitan area that specialize in work for kids, including Emerald City Theatre Company and Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences, part of DePaul University’s theater school.

Other Chicago companies more often associated with adult fare, such as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Steppenwolf Theatre Company, also produce works aimed at young audiences.

Miss Russell believes there is room for them all.

“I think it’s fantastic to have other companies doing work that we can all benefit from, in terms of building theatergoers, in terms of getting more artists excited about the work and treating it more seriously,” she says.

As the respect for, and interest in, children’s theater has grown, well-known playwrights have taken notice. A-listers who have written for children include Robert Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his drama “The Kentucky Cycle.” He was the playwright who adapted Stephen Vincent Benet’s classic story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” for audiences 11 and older.

Still, Miss Eyring says she finds that some people don’t take children’s theater seriously.

“And I just say, if you could see it, you would be envious,” she says, “because it’s actually some of the best theater that’s happening anywhere.”

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