Children Should Hear and See: Theatre for Youth Flourishes in Seattle

By Berson, Misha | American Theatre, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview

Children Should Hear and See: Theatre for Youth Flourishes in Seattle


Berson, Misha, American Theatre


I was a newcomer to Seattle, and had been on the job as theatre critic for the Seattle Times for only a couple of months, when it was suggested I review a new play - a dramatization of the classic L. M. Montgomery story "Anne of Green Gables" - at the Seattle Children's Theatre.

To be honest, the assignment did not thrill me. In fact, I hoped somehow to weasel my way out of it.

Here I was running ragged trying to cover the theatrical waterfront in a city with a dozen resident professional companies, prolific fringe ensembles and some daunting annual performance festivals. My schedule was crammed with more important premieres at adult theatres, so why should I squeeze in a visit to a kiddie outfit quartered at the municipal zoo?

I admit, too, that I nursed a cynical distrust of anything that labeled itself "children's theatre" - and don't tell me I'm alone in that. Leaving out some captivating work in Europe, the more sophisticated and dazzling forms of puppetry, and a lot of enjoyable times under the circus big top, much of what I'd seen of that designation had been well-intentioned but artistically lame - and sometimes, well, immature.

I could, of course, appreciate the enrichment value of creative, hands-on drama education programs for kids. And I could maybe buy that having them watch erstwhile adults mug their way through fluffy animal stories, and dopey musicals based on familiar fairy tales, was better than giving them no standard live theatre at all during the "wonder years."

Of course, I had heard of the sterling job being done by the Children's Theatre in Minneapolis, the youth company at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Paper Bag Players in New York, and a few other exemplary theatres for youth scattered around the U.S. But I had seen little of that calibre for youngsters in northern California, where I spent 15 years working in and writing about theatre. And looking back at my own early childhood, what impressed me most was not the "kid stuff" but the grown-up musicals and dramas I managed to catch: a vivid and scary Macbeth that astonished me at age eight, a summer stock Carousel which held me spellbound when I was barely out of diapers, a tryout of West Side Story on its way to Broadway.

So if it hadn't been for the encouragement of a couple of colleagues who vouched for SCT, I would have begged off. On their advice alone, I reluctantly dragged myself to the Woodland Zoo on one of the few sunny and dry Saturday afternoons of that entire winter, anticipating (and dreading) a well-meaning but predictably amateurish rendition of the beloved story. of Anne, a feisty orphan girl sent to live in the far reaches of rural Canada.

But a crazy thing happened. About five minutes into SCT's Anne of Green Gables it became clear that the wood-hewn sets and keen lighting would be impressively evocative, that the acting (by an adult cast) would be intelligent and professional, and that R. N. Sandburg's adroit adaptation of this classic tale would keep the treacle and gush down to the bare minimum.

About 20 minutes into the play, another realization struck. The capacity crowd of several hundred video-saturated and computer-savvy children, most of them in the 6-to-12 age range, were hanging onto every word of dialogue. Little fidgeting occurred, or back-talking - even from a crew of 10-year-old boys behind me who probably didn't go for female orphan sagas in a big way. When the show ended, the youthful audience clapped enthusiastically. And so, to my surprise, did I.

My experience at SCT was not to be an isolated phenomenon. Soon I also discovered a tiny, popular institution called the Northwest Puppet Center, which features the work of the masterful Carter Family Marionettes and quietly brings in inventive puppeteers from across the U.S., Europe and Asia.

I learned, too, that not only do most of Seattle's 10 Equity playhouses regularly schedule student matinees of their mainstage productions, and do educational enrichment programs, but the three largest - Seattle Repertory Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre and Intiman Theatre - maintain professional school touring units with union actors. …

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