Kennedy Center Raises Curtain on New Theater; Family Theater Committed to Arts Education

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Kennedy Center Raises Curtain on New Theater; Family Theater Committed to Arts Education


Byline: Gary Tischler, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Director Shirley Jo Finney is running the cast of "Alice" through its paces the week after Thanksgiving, among big, colorful blocks of letters spelling out the title of the play in a small rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center, when she's asked about the newest addition to the center's performance space.

"We can't wait," she says. "It's going to be great. It's a terrific space."

"It" is the new Family Theater, a 324-seat, state-of-the-art permanent home theater where the Kennedy Center will showcase its programming for young people and families.

Under construction and renovation more than 11 months, the new theater - the Kennedy Center's sixth performing-arts space - cost $9 million and is part of the center's $125 million commitment to performing-arts education.

"Alice" was picked to inaugurate the new Kennedy Center Family Theater. All the production participants knew it would be helter-skelter time come opening day for this urban coming-of-age-tale. The company held its first full dress rehearsal on Friday and officially opened the theater with a performance that night.

This also marks the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy Center's Imagination Celebration, the performance series for young audiences that will call the Family Theater home. The Kennedy Center has created, produced or commissioned nearly 100 productions for the Imagination Celebration series since the series began.

* * *

The opening of the Family Theater was something of a coming-out party for the Kennedy Center's education arm and its programming.

Probably no cultural institution in Washington stages more performing-arts fare for the whole family than the Kennedy Center. However, because the plays and events - incubated, rehearsed and produced throughout the Kennedy Center's various spaces, including the Terrace Theater, the Theater Lab and the Millennium Stage - have been performed without the banner of a home theater, they have never received the kind of focused attention from the public and the press that they might otherwise have enjoyed.

That's all changed with the presence of the Family Theater, a showcase facility keyed to the presence of young people that still retains most of the formality of a real theater space.

"This has always been a pet project of mine," Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser says. "It reflects the center's and my commitment to young people and their families. It makes our efforts more visible. It offers us ways to introduce young people to the magic of theater."

Darrell Ayers, vice president of education at the Kennedy Center, says the center has done an enormous amount of family and young people's theatrical productions over the years.

"But this," he says, referring to the Family Theater, "has been a dream of ours. We've never had a specific place that says, 'That's our family theater, our venue.' And it's the kind of place that allows you to do a lot of things and use it in other ways."

It's for young people, yet it's very accessible to everyone.

"Accessibility is a key to this," he says. "It's not a playground. It's not set up like a rumpus room. It's meant to give young people a real experience - and hopefully the habit - of going to the theater."

* * *

Here's what that means in statistical, fact-sheet terms. The new Kennedy Center Family Theater has 14,000 square feet. It has 324 comfortable seats with cushions covered in a multicolor fabric called Firecracker. It has a tiered layout. It includes two elevators for access and a spacious lobby. It has comfortable, accessible seating for up to 25 wheelchair users. It contains four dressing rooms, including two underneath the stage.

It is state-of-the-art, high-end, with a rigging system controlled by a computer in the stage wing. It has a high-tech, up-to-the-minute infrastructure for lights, audio, video and data that includes a capability for Internet broadcasting, television, audio recording and interactive programming. …

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