- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2001

It's 10 a.m. on a Friday as theater patrons file in to Wolf Trap, the national park for the performing arts in Vienna. The crowd isn't there to get a good seat for the evening performance. In fact, it moves right past the Filene Center, the huge amphitheater where acts such as the National Symphony Orchestra and the Wolf Trap Opera Company perform.

After trooping through a meadow and over a creek, the visitors reach their destination Wolf Trap's Theatre-in-the-Woods, a rustic, 1,000-seat outdoor theater tucked into a shady spot on the grounds of the park.

Theatre-in-the-Woods has been a popular way to introduce children from ages 3 to 13 to the performing arts for 27 years, says Miriam Flaherty, Wolf Trap's director of education. The Wolf Trap Foundation sponsors the theater's performance series, which presents a variety of acts such as dance troupes, puppeteers and music groups. Perennial favorites include Dinorock, an entertaining trio of storytellers and actors, and Bob Brown Puppets, a local ensemble of oversized puppets and marionettes.

"It is a wonderful way for children to see performances that are appropriate for them," Ms. Flaherty says. "We work hard to present quality shows that expose kids to performances they might not ordinarily go to for easy entertainment."

The Theatre-in-the-Woods schedule tries to reflect what is playing at Wolf Trap, Ms. Flaherty says. While Riverdance was performing during the last week of June, for instance, the Culkin Irish dancers school-age dancers from the Culkin School in Silver Spring performed jigs and reels at Theatre-in-the-Woods.

Two acts are booked each week, with performances at 10 and 11:15 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The series expanded from six weeks to seven weeks this season, Ms. Flaherty says.

Part of the reason crowds pack the amphitheater daily is the price, which is $3 a ticket for one show, $5 for both shows. Free workshops with performers from the 10 a.m. show also are offered following the performance on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

"We're always looking for things to do in the summer that are cost-effective and fun," says Kelly Gray of Ashburn, Va., who brought her daughter Abby, 4, to see the Culkin dancers. "This is our first time, but I think we have reservations to come to four or five shows this summer."

The price of admission used to be even more affordable. From 1974 until 1999, when the program was run by the Department of the Interior, tickets to Theatre-in-the-Woods were free. Budget cuts put the theater in jeopardy three seasons ago, and the Wolf Trap Foundation was asked to take over the project. The only way to keep worthwhile acts booked was to start charging admission, Ms. Flaherty says.

"At first, people were disappointed," she says, "but it is still such a reasonable price. Other national parks charge. Other performing arts programs charge. It still is one of the best deals in the area."

It's an even better deal when you make a day of it. Many patrons bring a picnic and eat along the banks of the creek after the first show. Experienced Theatre-in-the-Woods visitors even bring swimsuits and water shoes to go wading in the creek's clear waters.

"Go ahead and play in the creek," Ms. Flaherty says. "It is a national park."

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