On a blustery mid-week afternoon in late November, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was in pre-holiday high gear. Coming up: the Kennedy Center Honors, the Kirov Opera and Ballet, the Royal Shakespeare Company and “The Taming of the Shrew,” Christmas and all the Bach and Handel anyone could wish for.
Almost lost in the excitement was the crowd outside the Theater Lab upstairs: Teachers there funneled four groups of chattering elementary school students through the door and into another world — the world of the musical, a new play for young people commissioned and produced by the Kennedy Center.
“Alexander, Who’s Not Not Not Not Not Not Going to Move,” written by Judith Viorst with music by Shelly Markham and direction by Nick Olcott, zeroes in on what could be a major trauma in a young life: a family move (in this case thousands of miles away) from the only home a child (in this case 6-year-old Alexander) has ever known.
And once the curtain parts, fidgeters and fussbudgets alike fall silent for a full hour.
The galas and the big-ticket events at the Kennedy Center may get most of the attention. But almost since its inception, a very big part of the center’s operations are shows like “Alexander,” commissioned works for young people, which are perhaps the most visible part of the center’s Department of Education and Outreach.
In the multilayered world of education at the Kennedy Center, a show like “Alexander” is an integrated part of other programs, principally the yearly Imagination Celebration, a season of performance events for young people and families, which includes dance, music and other sub-genres of the arts.
“Alexander” is but one in a long line of 82 original, commissioned works for young people that began in 1977. “Alexander” is part of Performance Plus, a program that give audiences a behind-the-scenes look at a particular production and even talk with the people who helped to put it together.
The performance aspect is a critical component of the Kennedy Center’s far-reaching Education Department and is its most immediately visible element.
“I know everything looks complicated and multifaceted,” says Derek E. Gordon, senior vice president for education at the Kennedy Center (who also handles programming for jazz and the Performing Arts for Everyone program).
“But basically, it starts at the creativity level, at the performance level, in the production and creation of programs, events, shows and plays for young people,” he says.
Mr. Gordon, who has been at the Kennedy Center for 12 years, sees the programs working together to broaden the audience base and appreciation for live performance in the arts, not just locally, but regionally and nationally.
“We have to offer kids performance efforts that open up a particular world to them, that make them see this as the kind of experience they enjoy and learn from. There’s so many things out there now — television, movies, videos, games, the Internet, that theater and the performing arts seem to them a fresh experience, something that has immediacy.
“The second component is integrating programs and performance with the efforts of educators, teachers and principals at the class and school level,” he says. “To that end we have workshops for teachers, programs centered around professional development as well as performances for school groups at accessible prices.”
In addition, Mr. Gordon says, future artists are trained to compete for admission to special classes and programs, including legendary American Ballet Theater ballerina Suzanne Farrell’s master class. Members of the class have gone on to become part of her dance company, which performs the works of choreographer George Balanchine.
The Kennedy Center is also home to the Dance Theater of Harlem’s Community Residency, begun in 1993 under the direction of the legendary dancer Arthur Mitchell; a biennial national forum on playwriting for young people; intern programs with the National Symphony Orchestra and an international forum on jazz composition and performance in the name of the late jazz legend Betty Carter.
All of the components — companies and artists that perform and teach, and touring productions that originate at the Kennedy Center — create a ripple effect where more young people as well as their parents and teachers are exposed to more performances directly and indirectly, as audience members or as participants.
“Finding future artists is one thing,” Mr. Gordon says. “You have to get the young people in touch with live performance, to give them an opportunity to see, hear and watch material that that’s expressly for them. That’s where it starts.”
That’s what “Alexander, Who’s Not Not Not Not Not Not Going to Move” is about and the long history of mounting — and bringing in — productions for young people. It’s what’s behind the Imagination Celebration, a yearly and big season of live performance events for young people, in performances for the public as well as school groups.
“The creation of work for young people comes down to respecting young people as an audience,” Mr. Gordon says. “You try to create work that kids want to see, you’re trying to create work that’s good art for children, that connects with young people. You’ll find that they have pretty high standards. As an audience, they’re not inhibited by how you’re supposed to behave at the theater, they get involved, they ask probing questions, they talk about what they’ve seen.”
Jeff Hill, who heads the Theater Lab and mounts productions of commissioned works at the Kennedy Center, concurs.
“Doing shows for children is rewarding because kids are very honest about what they’re experiencing at any given moment,” he says. “If they like a show, they let you know right then and there and also if they don’t like it. Instant feedback.”
Mr. Gordon says there’s no “junk food” in this diet. “It’s all kinds of things that hopefully they can connect to. We have a show like ‘Alexander,’ and commissioned an opera — ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ — and we’ve partnered with Ballet Austin, who’ve created a dance version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and will be coming here for it.”
And Mr. Hill emphasizes the outreach aspect of the work.
“We try to create highly professional work and work with both local, regional and national theater professionals,” Mr. Hill says. “We choose recognized directors and theater professionals, who in turn select actors and performers through auditions.”
It pays off. The Washington Times’ critic Jayne Blanchard gave “Alexander” a rating of 31/2 stars, calling the show “a treat for both the youngsters and their elders.”
“There was not one smidgen of restlessness during the weekend matinee, and any veteran of children’s theater can tell you that is nothing shy of a miracle,” Ms. Blanchard wrote in her review.
Since 1977, there have been 82 commissioned works for young people staged at the Kennedy Center, beginning with the play “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.”
The productions have spanned theater, opera, dance, jazz, storytelling and popular music, often mixing genres. They have attracted new playwrights, choreographers, and composers as well as such luminaries as choreographer and performer Debbie Allen, who created four original dance pieces, beginning with “Pepito’s Story” in 1996 and ending with last year’s “Pearl.”
In 1993, one of the commissioned productions (in partnership with the Metropolitan Opera Guild) was the opera “Romulus Hunt” by pop legend Carly Simon. Recently, the Kennedy Center staged Ken Ludwig’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in a new version for young people with music and lyrics by Don Schlitz.
“Alexander” began show life in 1998 with “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” a musical tale about the troubles of a 6-year-old suburban boy.
The first “Alexander” was based on a 1972 book by Mrs. Viorst that has since sold 2 million copies.
“It was about one of my sons, who was named Alexander, and he did have a bad time of it at times,” Mrs. Viorst says. “In the show, Alexander’s having typical reactions to the prospect of his family moving away. He’s anxious about losing friends, the dog next door, his whole world in some ways. That’s something a lot of children have experienced.”
Mrs. Viorst is a multi-tasker, a Renaissance woman who’s published a number of successful children’s books, written the best-selling “Necessary Losses,” has a degree in history, and, besides publishing several books of poetry for adults, is a research affiliate with the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.
“Kids have enormous amounts of distractions and entertainment,” she says. “I like the idea of reading to kids, and I think there’s a connection between theater and reading and books. Kids respond actively to it in a way they don’t with other forms of entertainment. How they respond can be astonishing.
“I am very author-involved with these productions,” she says. “I try to work closely with the director and the design team.”
Mr. Olcott is a veteran actor, director and playwright who has worked with most of the best theater companies in Washington, including Arena, Source, Scena, Round House, Olney and the Folger Shakespeare Theater. He’s acted in the films “The Shadow Conspiracy” and “That Night.”
He’s received Helen Hayes Awards nominations for acting, directing and playwriting. He directed the first “Alexander” and Ken Ludwig’s “Tom Sawyer” musical for the Kennedy Center. Even as he worked on the current “Alexander” he was busy preparing George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” for the Round House Theater in Bethesda, where he directed a luminous production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” a season ago.
“What you’re doing with a show like this, and in working with shows created for children, is a kind of sacred trust,” Mr. Olcott says. “You really have to keep it honest for them. And they know, believe me. They can be terrible cruel.”
“Basically, you’re trying to create work that works for two sets of audiences,” Mr. Olcott adds. “‘Alexander’ works for kids and adults, and it works as a teaching tool, and it’s great entertainment, that’s familiar to kids who’ve had the same experience as the boy has.”
The commissioned works are in many ways the most visible aspect of the Kennedy Center’s Education Department. It’s where young people intersect with theater and performance because it’s been made accessible to them, and created especially for them.
So that when the students from Hyde, Park View, Stanton and Young elementary schools in the District, who have filled up the Theater Lab, laugh with Wendell Jordan (who’s playing the part of Swoozie, the neighborhood dog) they’re being entertained, and when Jeremy Goldman (who plays Alexander) gets them to yell out, “I’m not, do you hear me, I’m not not not not not not going to move,’ they are in the show.
That’s a whole lot different from Saturday morning cartoons, the darkness of a cineplex or a view of the computer screen.
WHAT: “Alexander, Who’s Not Not Not Not Not Not Going to Move”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19; 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Dec. 20-23, 26-29.
For the young
“Alexander, Who’s Not Not Not NotNot Not Going to Move” is just one of some two dozen productions geared especially to young people and families as part of the Kennedy Center’s Imagination Celebration. Look for these others, coming soon:
The Emperor’s New Clothes: An opera version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale for ages 7 and up. Dec. 19-28.
The Taming of the Shrew: The East Coast premiere of Ballet Austin’s take on Shakespeare’s play, in a production for adults as well as young people. Jan. 2-4.
National Symphony Orchestra Kinderkonzerts — Bravo Brass: NSO brass principals Martin Hackelman (horn), Steve Hendrickson and Adel Sanchez (trumpets), Milton Stevens (trombone) and David Bragunier (tuba) perform and demonstrate brass instruments. With a pre-concert Instrument Petting Zoo. Jan. 10.
People of the Land: Dances of the Iroquois, Ojibwa, Blackfoot, Cree and Lakota plus storytelling and audience participation. Jan. 16-18.
African Stories in the Americas: Baba Jamal Koram, “The Story Man,” brings his bag of folktales, conjurer stories, songs, riddles and proverbs from West African villages. Jan. 19-25.
The Gruffalo: A whimsical adaptation of the children’s books featuring Mouse and his tall tales of the terrifying “Gruffalo.” Songs, music and laughter. Jan. 23-25