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Austin Chronicle Through the Eyes of a Kid

Theatre Ain't All Magic When You're Three

By Ada Calhoun

JULY 24, 2000:  Bringing kids to adult theatre is uncool. In May, when Salvage Vanguard Theater revived its radio serial The Intergalactic Nemesis and was trying to tape the show for later broadcast, a baby crying in the audience didn't help one bit. And more than once a kid's cute question has distracted full attention off the stage.

But what's it like to have kids in the audience of children's theatre, where they belong? Having spent a good 20 years away from such stages, I borrowed my friend's three-and-a-half-year-old son George, a frequent babysittee and very wonderful kid, to make a triumphal return to the world of puppets and fairy tales, a world where audience participation is actually a good thing.

Playfest is a 13-week annual children's performance festival at the Dougherty Arts Center. First on our docket was African Tales. We walked in late because George had to use the bathroom at the last minute. When we snuck in, all the children and their parents were sitting quiet and still in the dark watching the stage. Up there was the inimitable and very British Bernadette Nason, a queen of the children's theatre scene, jumping about telling stories from Africa about the sky and lions and hares in a soothing British accent. George settled in next to me and I thought, How bad can this be? And for about 15 minutes, it was quite pleasant. George loved when Ms. Nason had the audience roar like a lion or act like a bunny or pretend to throw things. But after a 10-minute dearth in audience participation, George (who had not had a nap that day) lost interest and started squirming and softly singing little songs like "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and sprawling all over and under his chair.

In the course of all this, he also started playing with a blue scarf, a scarf I realized we must have accidentally clipped from the nice pre-show man. George had turned down the pre-show guy's offer of a balloon animal because, he said, he "already got one from Central Market" and he didn't need two, but he didn't mind playing with the scarf and somehow we wound up never giving it back. George realized our theft too, and so kept hissing at me, "The pre-show guy, the pre-show guy!" and then finally, not so quietly, "I just want to go give it back to him."

So in between stories, we scurried into the lobby. Unfortunately, the pre-show guy had already left. I thought it might be time for us to leave too, because I was getting tired of trying to keep George on my lap and encouraging him to attend to stories I quite frankly had trouble following myself (probably because I was distracted by the battle to be like the happy, silent families around us), but George insisted on going back into the theatre. I warned him that if we did, he had to sit still and pay attention. He promised he would, and once inside managed two minutes of angelic behavior. After that, it was jumping and fidgeting such as I have rarely seen in my long babysitting career. It ended with him sprawled on the floor roaring long past the time he was encouraged by Ms. Nason to roar. As soon as the lights went out again, we ducked out for the final time and spent the last 10 minutes of the show in the parking lot, me leaning on my car and George running back and forth in front of the building at warp speed. As we were driving off, I asked him what he thought of the bits of the play we'd seen, and George initiated a long talk about why eating hats was a bad idea.

So obviously the first production had not made much of an impression, and we had failed miserably at being good audience members or even managing to stay in the theatre for the whole show. I felt guilty because I thought that we'd probably been distracting the actress and the beatific families around us, who had almost certainly drugged their kids. The problem, I decided, is that three-year-olds have boundless energy and need constant attention, two things that are foiled by the theatre set-up: sitting still in the dark and watching someone who is not them. Still, determined to unlock the mystery that is successfully attending children's theatre, I resolved that we return to Playfest again, and return we did the next Saturday.

This week, the show was Dos Guys, which I thought would go over well with George because, since he was a toddler, his favorite word has been "guy." Pumpkins are "Halloween guys," and bearded old men in red suits are "Santa guys." Only it turned out what we had at Playfest were a guy and a girl, two improv comics from ComedySportz. ComedySportz is a national comedy franchise, with more than two dozen locations offering, in addition to wholesome entertainment, comedic corporate training and defensive driving classes.

We showed up just as the pre-show guy was leaving (giving us, I was sure, a dirty look). At once, the two ComedySportz performers bounded onstage in their matching bowling shirts and started a rousing, incredibly high-energy routine. They pulled kids from the audience for improv games like "Mr. Know It All," in which they and a fearless kid onstage answered (taking turns word by word) audience questions such as "What does a rabbit eat?"

George, who had been asleep until we arrived at the show, looked shell-shocked. I asked him how he was doing and he said, "I want to go now." I suggested that we try it a little longer. He laughed through the whole next skit, which involved a lot of falling down, but then the next one started and he turned to me and said, with a startling resolve, "I really want to go now." And can you argue with that? I wasn't about to. The boundless enthusiasm of ComedySportz can be a difficult thing to encounter right after waking up from a nap. So we left.

The last show permitted by both our schedules was the musical comedy Goldie (a fish story) at the Reagan High School Performing Arts Center. Directed by Dede Clark, this was a different kind of show in that it was presented by the kidsActing company and performed by, you guessed it, kids (aged 7-17). A big musical in an auditorium, kids onstage, great costumes, an audience full of little kids and their shushing teachers, Goldie had promise. I was sure we were going to hit pay dirt.

The opening was great. A huge white shell loomed stage right. In it sat a sultry teen in a mermaid outfit, glowing pearl in hand. Bubbles flew out around the shell and Pearl the mermaid belted out a song called "Sea Stories and Fish Tales." "A fish!" George said upon noticing her tail, and then "Bubbles!" He was enraptured and so was I. Then Goldie the goldfish appeared, along with her younger brother Splasher, played by a charismatic seven-year-old. It was a cavalcade of ambitious fish and nonstop puns. The shark, Mr. White, was terrifying. Something for everyone.

But after 40 minutes, the first act was still in progress, and George was alternately expressing total fascination with the shark and total fascination with the way the auditorium seats flipped up and down. As soon as he started kicking the seat in front of him and singing, I bought his silence, in an act of desperation, with the promise of intermission M&Ms. This worked fine, except that for the next 15 minutes he said at the end of every song, with increasing volume, "Is it over now?"

Intermission was spent eating M&Ms on the lawn outside and playing with sticks. We went back into the theatre to press our luck and lasted all of one number before George made it clear that he'd had enough. Out front again, George located the stick he'd been playing with earlier, and I took some pictures. Then, just as we were about to leave, a bunch of the actors appeared and walked past us to enter their next scene via the aisles. I said, excitedly, "Look, George, it's the lobster!" but the lobster came over and said, indignantly "I'm not a lobster, I'm a shrimp, that's why my name is Jumbo." Then the girl playing a fish named Jewel tried to convince us to come back inside for "the best part."

It's hard to say no to a friendly blond-wigged creature in blue face paint, so we ducked back in and sat in the rear of the auditorium. It was, indeed, a good number. Jewel's solo, "I May Be a Jewelfish, but I'm More Than Just a Bauble," closely resembled a hotbox number from Guys and Dolls. Jewel was great, but not a whole lot had changed since we left before. George felt duped, and I spent the whole song keeping him quiet after someone said "Goldie" and George echoed back, "GoldieGoldieGoldieGoldie!" We left for good when the lights went out, and that was it for our adventures in theatregoing.

Driving away from Reagan High, George said that all he remembered of African Tales was something about "a lion on the roof." Dos Guys had not registered at all. Goldie, he said, was his favorite, because of the shark. He was happy to have met the lobster (shrimp), who he said was nice, but he was sorry he'd missed the shark, who seemed mean but probably wasn't.

We got to his day care in the middle of naptime and I stayed with him until he fell asleep, almost conking out myself on the mat-strewn floor. Exhausted and full of respect for parents everywhere, I started to worry that we had not triumphed. We still hadn't made it through an entire show (though I think the hour and a half we spent at the epic Goldie was something of an accomplishment), George had not been converted into a theatre fan, and I was wiped out by the whole ordeal.

Still, it was educational, and there were rewards. I did get to leave halfway through shows, a mischief usually forbidden the critic. I did get to spend time with my favorite local kid while sort of working at the same time. And I was, in the end, impressed by the diversity (folk tales! improv! musicals!) of children's theatre here in Austin. All this town needs to round out the genre is the perfect performance piece for preschoolers. I have it all worked out: a 20-minute running time, lots of falling down, repetitive songs, glitter, bubbles, and loud audience feedback, solicited and otherwise. Until that show hits the stage or George ages a couple of years (whichever comes first), it looks like he and I will stick to the park.


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