Summer Offers Many Kids Their First Taste of Theatre

Summer Offers Many Kids Their First Taste of Theatre Have you ever had to fly around on a broom with a witch?" asks the woman in the cat suit.

Have you ever had to fly around on a broom with a witch?" asks the woman in the cat suit.

"Noooo!" comes the answer, rolling up the aisles from 500 children one warm Friday afternoon.

But they seem ready to go. They're hanging on "Hansel and Gretel" at the Westport Country Playhouse, in Westport, CT.

The playhouse's summer children's theatre series is booming along with others like it throughout Connecticut -- indeed, all of North America. Gretel, it seems, has heard of the yet -unseen witch, and imagines her long nose and sharp nails.

"I'm getting scared, aren't you?" Gretel asks the audience. A pause to consider.

"Noooo!"

A buttery wave of maternal chuckles.

The moms are amused, but not fooled. It's not long before the witch herself makes her appearance, more ragged than scary. But that's more than enough for Caryn Brough, 4, who has brought along her friend Honeybear for just such an emergency.

She buries her face in her Mom's shoulder, but soon is peeking out again as she hears hoots and laughter from the kids around her.

Savoring the extended opportunity to hug her daughter on her lap, Caryn's mom Cheryl Brough said children's theatre is "a great opportunity. For the same price as going to a movie, you can go to a real theater."

Why not just go plop her in front of a video at home?

"No contest," said Brough. Live theatre offers so much more. Here, the children are answering back, participating. It's a fantastic experience for them."

"I liked the part where the witch held out the toad," said Andrew Stern, 7.

Comparing the stage version of "Hansel and Gretel" with the storybook, Amanda Cardinal, 6, said, "Instead of painting, it was like a movie. It was funny."

Searching for that kind of live and in person experience, parents are bringing their kids to one-or two hour live performances amid the fragrances of old wood, lollipops and laundry soap in theatres like Westport's.

Brad Lohrenz, general manager of Gateway's Candlewood Playhouse in New Fairfield, CT, said he's seen a gradual increase in attendance since the beginning of his theater's subscription series in June. For example, Candlewood's production of "Snow White" sold out the 637-seat theater.

Jane Stanton, the artistic director of the Penny Bridge Players, said she has no trouble filling the 252 seats of the Ivoryton Playhouse when the children's troupes perform there on Fridays from June through August.

The state offers a smorgasbord of live performances, not just at theaters like Ivoryton and the Puppet House Theatre in Stony Creek, but libraries, churches -- even sports stadiums.

The most popular seem to be traditional fairy tales such as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," "Sleeping Beauty," "Peter Pan" and "The Wizard of Oz."

"Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" gained fresh popularity in the wake of the Walt Disney films, though area theatres use original scripts and music.

But there's also improvisational theatre at Jack Hubbard's Madhatters Summer Workshop of Essex, participatory storytelling by Uncle Pat (Patrick Monahan) of Orange and talent shows at New Haven's Artspace.

Some teach specific skills as "Sesame Street" does; others exist solely for singing, dancing, silly jokes, and pratfalls.

What makes a crowd-pleaser when the crowd is under 10?

"I do not know," said Joan Shepard, executive director of the Fanfare Theatre Ensemble, which produced "Hansel and Gretel" at Westport.

"Maybe I do: They love to be part of it. They love to have the opportunity to talk to you onstage as your character. They want to talk to the witch: They tell her she is very ugly. I play the witch, and I love it.

Several other principles emerged from discussions with children's theatre directors and actors. For example, long dialogue scenes, inaudibility and condescension are poison. Dancing, music, slapstick and audience participation are plusses. Opportunities to clap and/or boo lustily seem especially appreciated.

"I don't believe in going into the audience and picking out five to come up and be dwarfs," said Stanton. But it is important to play in the audience. Usually I direct it so there is one good chase throughout the audience."

You might think the productions are carefully calibrated to specific age groups. But Shepard said that strategy has no hope of working and may not be a good thing anyway.

"We recommend that nobody under age three should come, but in large families especially, there parents bring them nevertheless," she said.

"But we've discovered over the years that if you have a mixed audience, younger kids are going to 'get it' better than if they were just there with a lot of other younger kids. They take there cues from the older ones; they absorb something from them."

Though keeping the attention and control of several hundred kids on a warm afternoon might seem like some people's idea of an actor's nightmare, the actors and directors said it's a satisfying challenge.

"Kids are not a polite audience,: Shepard said. "if they don't like it, they talk; they leave; they go to the bathroom endlessly -- 9 or 10 times a show. But they don't do that if they really like the show. They talk to you. And talking to you onstage is entirely different from talking among themselves--and far preferable."

For Shepard, the compensations outweigh the risks. "When they like you, they really like you. It's very satisfying. You get a lot of love from them."

-- By Robert Viagas