Imagine you’re a child watching a live theatrical performance for the first time. You’ve seen plenty of movies and television shows, but this is something new and exciting — actual people walking, talking, dancing and singing on a stage, conjuring the illusion of a story right in front of your eyes.
Aaron Thielen’s first theatrical voyage as a young audience member was Moby Dick. He saw a stage version of Herman Melville’s novel when he was a boy growing up in Milwaukee. “It changed my life,” he recalls. “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘What is this thing that I’m seeing?’ It just blew my mind that this was happening in front of me. It opened something inside of me. I was just so excited about seeing something that felt so present and real.”
Thielen did not decide to pursue a career in the theatre right at that very moment. But looking back on that memory now, he realizes how much that experience inspired him. Eventually, he became a playwright and director, landing in his current job as an artistic director at the Marriott Theatre in north suburban Lincolnshire.
At the Marriott, Thielen strives to give children experiences similar to the one he had at that show in Milwaukee when he was a boy. Although the Marriott is best known for Broadway musicals targeted to adult audiences, the venue also hosts three shows every year specifically designed to entertain children. “It’s a huge, important program for the theatre,” Thielen says.
That tradition continues with the Marriott’s presentation of The Emperor’s New Clothes (February 23–May 1). Based on the famous 1837 story by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, it tells the tale of an emperor who puts on a suit of clothes that are supposedly invisible to anyone who’s stupid or incompetent. In reality, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes at all, but most of the people around him are afraid to say he’s naked.
The musical adaptation at the Marriott was written in 1985 by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who later later collaborated on one of our era’s most beloved musicals for children, Seussical. (Ahrens and Flaherty also wrote Ragtime, which the Marriott is staging through March 18.)
In this version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the title character is Marcus, a 14-year-old boy who’s nervous about taking the throne. “He’s feeling this pressure to succeed, but he doesn’t really know how to,” says the show’s director, Amanda Tanguay. Following dubious advice from his advisers, Marcus tries hard to look more like an emperor. He wears various outlandish outfits, hoping he’ll win respect if he looks more regal. “At first he gets dressed up in these really extravagant clothes,” Tanguay says. “But then at the end, we see him down to his underwear. When the bare truth is laid out there, we realize that he really has been capable of being a good emperor all along.”
Declan Desmond, a student at Evanston Township High School who performed in Trevor the Musical at Writers Theatre and Newsies at the Marriott, plays Emperor Marcus III. “Kids can identify with a younger person onstage,” Tanguay says. “He brings honesty to the role.”
The Emperor’s New Clothes is exactly the sort of show the Marriott likes to stage for young audiences. It’s about an hour long, which is just long enough to hold the attention of children. It’s filled with fun and colorful moments, plus some catchy songs. Along with themes and dialogue that will resonate with the parents in the audience, it offers valuable lessons for children to think about. “This show is all about being a great leader,” Tanguay says. “And if you think about it, a room full of five- and six-year-olds — they are our future leaders. We want to bring children and parents to come together, so they can talk about things. It’s more than just entertainment. It’s a chance to learn.”
Thielen says the Marriott’s actors relish the chance to perform in front of children. “They will let you know when they’re bored,” he says of young theatregoers. “They will start getting restless. When they’re silent, you know you’ve got them. Kids naturally want to participate, so they are fully invested in what’s happening, whereas an adult audience just sits back and lets it happen to them. I wish more adults would allow the child in them to come out.”
Tanguay — an actor, dancer and choreographer from Downers Grove who previously directed The Velveteen Rabbit at Marriott—says she especially looks forward to the question-and-answer sessions that follow every Marriott performance for kids. “They ask such smart questions,” she says. “They want to know about the storyline. Sometimes, they’ll ask, ‘Why was that character bad? Why did they choose to do that?’ But they’ll also ask, ‘Who made your costumes?’ And we get to let them in on in the secrets.”
“Everything is fair game,” Thielen says of the audience questions. “We explain how we did it. We try to offer them the opportunity to do the exact same thing at home—instilling in them the idea that using your imagination is crucial.”
Of course, only a small percentage of the kids attending any show at the Marriott will become theatre professionals. But Thielen and Tanguay hope their shows inspire children to be creative in one way or another, whether it’s painting pictures or writing stories. And they hope that the Marriott’s shows will get those kids interested in seeing more live theatre. (Marriott will offer two more shows for children later in 2018: Pinkalicious, based on Elizabeth and Victoria Kann’s books about a little girl who loves all things pink, will run from July 14 to August 12, followed by Shrek the Musical from October 5 to December 30).
Even though the children’s shows are shorter than the plays for adults, the Marriott team insists it doesn’t dumb things down for the younger audiences. “I don’t pander,” states Tanguay. “Everything has to be honest and come from a real place. It’s a direct mirror of what’s happening in our own lives and the society around us. If you’re treating everything honestly, it’s going to be entertaining for both kids and parents.”