- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

Visitors to the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater this summer took a trip to Uganda, a small country in eastern Africa.

In her program "Summer Africa," entertainer Namu Lwanga taught the 100 or so audience members mostly children to count to five in her native language, Luganda. She told stories and played a traditional African instrument made of a hollowed piece of wood topped by long hair from a goat's tail. She discussed the country's flag and showed the audience a traditional dance.

The performer brought the children to a place in their minds that previously was just a place on a map.

That's the point, says artistic director Roberta Gasbarre.

"We have an incredible store of knowledge at Discovery Theater," she says. "You're not going to find what you see in other children's theaters, because [these performances] have to be about something. If parents bring their children here, they should take away something."

Discovery, which Ms. Gasbarre calls "the best-kept secret in Washington," is nestled within the Arts and Industries Building next to the Smithsonian Castle. It serves about 50,000 children a year with its open-seating, no-chairs arena, in which every vantage point is a good one.

"This theater is a really special place for children," she says. "They're so tight, so close. The performers really talk to the audience."

Ms. Gasbarre and the Smithsonian Associates, the membership and educational outreach arm of the Smithsonian Institution, offer a lineup of puppets, storytellers, dancers, actors, musicians and mimes who present classic stories for children and folk tales, history and culture from all over the world. The season usually includes more than a dozen headliners; the performances frequently have an international or interactive flair and always have a lesson in mind.

The fall 2002 lineup includes "Galapagos George, A South American Tortoise Tale" in early October. It's the story of Lonesome George, the last remaining tortoise in the Pinto Islands. "Circle of Sol y Soul" is scheduled later that month and into November. It is an interactive event with percussion-heavy songs that explore Afro-Latino rhythms and music. The Discovery Theater Pumpkin Party and Parade in late October will feature Nicolo Whimsey in a show filled with audience participation and trick-or-treat practice.

As part of American Indian Heritage Month in November, "Kachina Drums" will tell the story of Coyote and Raven, the first boy and girl. Mid-November will feature the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, which incorporates dance, storytelling, music and audience participation into "Wild Things," a show about Grandma Max the "wild thing" and her magical journey.

In December, the theater is scheduled to present "Seasons of Light," a celebration of all the season's holidays, centered on darkness and light. One of the theater's most popular shows, "Seasons of Light" was written and is directed by Ms. Gasbarre.

"I hold myself to a museum standard," she says. "You come to the Smithsonian expecting to see quality exhibits and programs. We are no different at Discovery Theater. What we present has to be museum-ready."

Ninety percent of the theater's business comes from weekday groups church, school and special-interest groups and camps. Although most of the programs run during the week, Ms. Gasbarre says she usually offers one Saturday program every month.

"And most of our Saturday artists if we sell out a show, they'll say, 'Let's add another show in 45 minutes,'" she says.

She advises patrons to go to the box office 20 minutes before the start of a show to obtain tickets.

"A lot of people make a day of it on the Mall," she says. "They come down, go to Discovery Theater, then go to the museums. There's always something going on."

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