Cinderpost 2: theater for families

The final rehearsal: Mary Tuomenen, Petersen Townshend

The final rehearsal: Mary Tuomenen, Petersen Townshend

Those who bemoan the decline of classical music in America would do well to study what the Arden Theater is doing with its family theater shows. Often the provence of the basement theater, the annex, or the “cafetorium”, theater for families has suffered the slings and arrows of theater snobs for generations. Our director Whit confided in me that he has grant applications rejected because he has mentioned his involvement in theater for families. I have special rant about idiot selection committees and review panels for grants, but I shall contain myself and save it for another posting. In any case, I am writing here to extoll the choice the Arden (and other theaters) have made: to put family theater on the biggest stage they have, give it a sizable budget, cast it with first-rate actors and create a play the institution can be proud of by any measure. Sure, it’s the holiday cash cow, just as the Nutcracker is for the ballet. But the best ballets make the best Nutcrackers. If classical music institutions spent as much time creating family friendly programming, and headlining it, we might not see so many orchestras going under.

Matteo Scammel in tech

Matteo Scammel in tech

Sidebar: know where the derisive term “turkey” comes from? As in, the show’s a real turkey. From the theater of course! Years ago, broadway producers would mount limited runs of big, crowd-pleasers between Thanksgiving and mid-January to capitalize on the forgiving holiday audiences in New York. These shows came to be called “christmas turkeys”.

In Cinderella, we take our bows at the curtain call, and then the indefatigable Alex Keiper (one of our hilarious step-sisters) leaps around the theater coaching questions out of shy kids. After four or five questions like this, asked in in the theater and in front of the whole audience, we stroll out to the lobby where we greet the families as they exit. This allows for more questions, hugs, high-fives and photo ops. I am proud to say the King is a draw, mostly because of his crown, I think. But also because the kids think he’s funny and want to know why he doesn’t get out of bed for four years. In the morning shows, done for schools, the greetings are poignant. Some kids approach wide-eyed and arms outstretched. They just want to be held. Others approach then lose their nerve and retreat to the teacher. Gangs of kids swarm the Prince, the Step-Sisters and of course, our Cinderella. All of this merry-making adds an additional 15 – 20 minutes to the end of the show for us. There are actors who won’t do a show like this because it asks for this kind of connection to the audience. How sad. I view it as an investment in my own future. But so much more than that. I feel I am participating in something magical and lasting for the kids who see it. Years from know, I hope to be in a tech rehearsal, and then chat up the lighting designer during a break, only to hear him say, my love for theater began when I was nine, and I saw ( title of family theater show here ) at ( name of forward-thinking theater here ).

Miriam White and Alex Keiper

Miriam White and Alex Keiper

I arrive at the theater around 9:45 am Tuesdays through Fridays to do my warmup for the 10 a.m. shows. I change into sweats and do a stretching routine on the stage, which is both an nice big place to stretch out, and a way I kindle my relationship to it for each show. Then I ride my bed around the stage during the show, steered by Katie Sink and Angie Coleman, who, along with Meredith Boring deserve endless chocolate bars and gold stars of the amazing job they do. The huge scenic “flippers” – swinging walls of scenery – are opened and closed by these girls, who also create most of the shadow bird effects, assist with quick costume changes, lift the hiding chest on pulleys as it flies away, and push yours truly around in his kingly bed.

The morning shows for schools have a different feel than the evening and weekend shows, which are more multigenerational. In general, the kids respond to us like we’re rock stars. And yes, they hoot, holler and talk back in ways that a snobby theater person would fund unbearable. But I love it. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from engaging them, panto-style, sometimes. The evening shows tend to be more restrained, as the kids filter their reactions because they’re with parents or other relatives. But some moments land better at these shows for the public, and some jokes which play gangbusters for one audience get crickets at the other. So we are learning to be nimble, and not too precious about playing laughs. Favorite moments so far: the cast backstage doing the pumpkin/rat/carriage shadow show that ends act 1, my comic business with Matteo, my final “wedding” of Prince and Cinderella. Really, I’m having a great time. And then weekdays, I’m free to do all the rest of the things I have going on in my life and be with my own kids at night.

Laura Wood (daughter of Susie who plays Maria) plays with my daughter Ella in rehearsal.

Laura Wood (daughter of Susie who plays Maria) plays with my daughter Ella in rehearsal.

One quibble. We really needed three weeks or rehearsal in the rehearsal room, then tech, then previews. Instead we had two weeks in the rehearsal room. This was hardest on Whit, our manic, intuitive director who was forced into “barking mode” as he calls it during tech as we literally used every last second we had to cut, re-shape, rehearse and re-invent. I understand the economics, but I also understand budgets. You take some from over here and you put it over there, and you buy yourself that vital third week of rehearsal. This trend is happening to theaters everywhere. I bitched about it during Around the World In 80 Days, Gypsy! and Cyrano. It is symptomatic of what’s happening to workers in many industries across the country: employers are asking workers to do more in less time, to meet the demands of the bottom line. Rather than go off on a Krugman-esque tangent here, let me say that this trend is especially damaging to the performing arts, which thrive in a profligate relationship to time in order to make the love required to birth a work of art. This aspect of creativity – its non-linear temporal life – is misunderstood as laziness and indulgence, it pisses off the Calvinists among us who want hard work leading to discernible outcomes. Sorry. Sometimes it comes out of my ear, sometimes it comes out of my knee and sometimes it comes out of my ass, I just can’t predict it. And no, I can’t have it for you by Friday at 5, at least not during the first two weeks. But I will be ready in three weeks, and then sail through tech on the way to making something wonderful.

We have made something wonderful. I’m proud of it, and grateful to be a part of it. Come see it! Runs through the end of January!

Katie Sink and Angie Coleman rest during tech.

Katie Sink and Angie Coleman rest during tech.