A modern day campfire?

I felt like a tiny twig used to kindle a much greater fire when I spoke recently with Kim Peter Novak, Director of Theater for Young Audiences with The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“What’s a humble blogger got to contribute in a world full of experts,” I wondered. Then I remembered gathering around the campire as a young Girl Scout, recalling the way we’d all head out to gather small bits of wood that would forge a fantastic flame once we threw them all together.

Kovac considers theater for young audiences a modern day campfire of sorts. It’s a place we gather to share our stories.

I like the campfire analogy, because sitting around a campfire with friends or family feels warm and welcoming. I hope it speaks to parents who hesitate to take their children to see live theater performance fearing it will be boring or stuffy.

Children aren’t exposed to theater or other live performance art unless they’re taken to see it by a “gatekeeper” of sorts–the parent, youth organization, school or other entity that finds the opportunities and purchases the tickets.

Sometimes parents are reticent because they fear theater produced or presented specifically for youth will be just plain awful. Kovac admits to seeing quite a few poor quality productions during his own young years.

But, he adds, the tide is turning on this one. More and more venues are offering theater for young audiences (which is different than “youth theater” presented by young performers). And more of them are upping the quality quotient.

Kovac reflects that during the past 10 to 15 years, those who put on performances for youth have realized that “the focus should be on quality.”

Cultural views of children have changed in this country, he says. Children are increasingly seen as “real” rather than “second hand” audiences.

That’s a plus for all of us, given that parents, teachers and caretakers are more inclined to take children to activities they enjoy as well.

What the Kennedy Center is really trying to do through their 2010-2011 performances for young audiences season–which includes everything from circus performance and adaptations of children’s literature to original works and jazz coupled with puppetry–is “really good work so a young person will understand and appreciate it.”

The Kennedy Center has an education department designed “to foster understanding of and participation in the arts through exemplary programs and performances for diverse populations of all ages that represent the unique cultural life and heritage of the United States.”

I’m particularly intrigued by their lineup for the 18th year of their “Theater for Young Audiences on Tour Program”–which includes two works commissioned by The Kennedy Center.

“Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical” will tour Oct 2010 to May 2011 with “a story about family, best friends, baby steps, and memories that last a lifetime.”

“Barrio Grrrl!,” which caught my eye after seeing “In the Heights” peformed recently at ASU Gammage in Tempe, will tour Jan to April 2011. It’s about a spunky girl and the imaginary friend who live with her “abuelo” (grandfather) while mom is serving as a soldier in Iraq.

While messages abound, Kovac notes that it’s the storytelling that counts.

A good story can share many a life lesson, but the message should never trump the tale.

What we’re really doing when we present or partake of live theater for youth, says Kovac, is what all civilizations did at the beginning.

We’re sitting around the campfire telling our stories.

Marshmallow, anyone?

–Lynn

Note: Watch for a future post sharing Kovak’s tips on creating quality theater for young audiences as well as his observations about trends he expects to see during the next decade or so.

Coming up: Lynn and Liz explore Cedar City, a fabulous destination for all sorts of festivals and fun.

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