Tag Archives: Dwayne Hartford

Once upon a playwright

Family is a common theme in works by Dwayne Hartford, pictured here (upper right) with his great-grandfather Luther (middle center) and other family members in Smithfield, Maine (Photo courtesy of Childsplay)

Once upon a time, while working in the mental health field, I came upon a rare play tackling themes related to youth suicide. It was Dwayne Hartford’s “Eric and Elliot,” one of many works performed by Childsplay in Tempe, where Hartford is both associate artist and playwright-in-residence.

I was asked to spend some time talking with cast members about mental health disorders in children and teens, something I’d experienced in both personal and professional mode — and was struck by their genuine interest in touching the lives of youth who’d be seeing the play in school and community settings.

Luther Hartford (here with wife Mable) built the family farmhouse in Maine

Though “Eric and Elliot” feels most personal to me, it’s “The Color of Stars” — being performed through May 20 at Tempe Center for the Arts — that feels most personal to Hartford. Though the work is fictional, Hartford recently shared that it was inspired by a story his father told him several years ago about loggers who boarded at his great-grandfather’s farmhouse while harvesting giant red oak trees for the war effort.

Though vastly different in topic and tone, themes in “The Color of Stars” mirror those of “Rock the Presidents” — a musical that made its world premiere at Childsplay before starting a nationwide tour I’m hoping will someday lead to the White House. It features book and lyrics by Hartford, and music by Sarah Roberts — and its common thread with “Stars” is the duty of every citizen to serve his or her country and community.

Hartford’s plays have been developed through Childsplay’s Whiteman New Plays Program. They’ve earned several awards, and often tour the country after premiering here in the Valley. “Eric and Elliot” received a distinguished play award from the American Alliance for Theatre & Education in 2005, and “The Imaginators” was produced and aired by our local PBS affiliate.

Hartford’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of love and redemption during the French Revolution, was developed through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and chosen for further development through NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences program — proof that the Arizona/NYC bridge gets traveled in both directions.

The family farmhouse in Smithfield, Maine where Hartford spent time as a child

Other works by Hartford, who holds a BFA in musical theatre from Boston Conservatory and began writing plays in 2000, include “A Little Bit of Water” and “The Bully Pulpit” (published as part of “The Bully Plays“). Nowadays he’s actor, director and playwright — plus theater educator. He’s teaching “On Stage: Play Production” (for ages 8-14) with Childsplay associate artist Katie McFadzen during this summer’s Childsplay Academy.

Folks eager to learn more about Hartford’s plays can find him on Facebook or hit his www.dwaynehartford.com website. Learn more about Childsplay — including their production of “The Color of Stars,” their “35th Birthday Party” happening tonight (April 27) and their summer academy classes by clicking here.

– Lynn

Note: Supporters of women playwrights should mark their calendars for this year’s Pandora Festival of New Works, coming to Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts May 18-20. Artists/students can click here to learn about the Hormel New Works Festival Art Contest, which is accepting submissions through June 1.

Coming up: Students sing Sondheim, Musings on music education, More playwright profiles — including James Garcia, Ben Tyler, Jim Gradillas and many more

“The Color of Stars”

Playwright Dwayne Hartford grew up in a small rural town called Smithfield, Maine -- where red oak trees perfect for building warships were plentiful

A lone blue star hangs in a window on the set of Childsplay’s “The Color of Stars.” It signals that fact that there’s a family member at war. It’s the father of a boy who’s been sent to live with his grandparents on a small farm in Maine. His mother is one of many American women working to build battle ships. The setting is World War II, and fear is rampant — making life especially difficult for Japanese- and German-Americans.

I sat behind a grandmother and granddaughter during Sunday’s matinee performance of “The Color of Stars,” a work by playwright and actor Dwayne Hartford, who grew up in a small town full of trees prized as raw material for making minesweepers. It’s there that Hartford learned lessons reflected in the play. The value of hard work. The nature of sacrifice. The importance of integrity.

I chatted with the pair, who hail from Chandler, after the show. They were attending as part of a “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren” program run by Duet, a non-profit organization founded by the Church of the Beatitudes. The granddaughter, a spunky redheaded teen named Veronica who loves writing horror fiction, told me the play was all about trust. Grandmother Roberta agreed and reflected on some of its other take-home messages. It’s better to ask than to assume, and wiser to smother a small fire than watch it burn out of control.

A fire sparked in the woods near the home Eddie shares with his grandparents mirrors the flames of fear fanned by those who assume all Germans, including a government worker sent to survey the area for trees, are Nazis. The lovely duo I chatted with shared that their own German heritage made the play feel especially poignant. I suspect “The Color of Stars,” directed by Graham Whitehead, will resonate best with those who’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice, those who’ve sent family members to war and those accustomed to small town life.

There’s much in “The Color of Stars” that mirrors my own childhood days spent visiting German grandparents in the tiny town of Tripp, South Dakota. Catching and gutting fish. Tending to corn crops. Doing farm chores like feeding the animals. Playing card games and Cribbage. Cast members share favorite memories of their own grandparents in “The Color or Stars” program, which also features several generations of Hartford family photos. (Seems Dwayne once rocked a big grin and some serious bangs.)

There’s a charming nostalgia to Hartford’s work, and a balanced take on the best and worst of what wartime does to families. It’s inspired me to dig out family photos I haven’t looked at in years. “The Color of Stars,” being performed through May 20 at Tempe Center for the Arts, is that rare piece of theater that spans the generations while strengthening the ties between them.

It’s also an eloquent window into wartime for students who tend to find the study of wars before the age of terrorism rather tedious. War has consequences. So do words. And everyday actions. “The Color of Stars” is a beautiful reminder that there’s strength in family, serenity in the night sky and something each of us must give to the community that sustains us.

– Lynn

Note: Childsplay is partnering with East Valley Blue Star Mothers to collect care package items for military members serving overseas. Audience members are invited to bring food or hygeine items when attending “The Color of Stars” — where they will be collected in the TCA lobby. Visit the Childsplay website for a list of requested items.

Coming up: Playwright profiles — starting with Dwayne Hartford of Childsplay

Update: Childsplay holds its 35th birthday bash Fri, April 27. Click here for details.

The Bully Plays

Makers of the film “Bully” have announced that it’ll open March 30 in select theaters, and make its way to Harkins Theatres Camelview 5 in Scottsdale on April 13. Bullying is also the subject of a new collection of short works for young actors called “The Bully Plays,” compiled and edited by Linda Habjan and published in 2011 by Dramatic Publishing.

“The Bully Plays” includes two dozen 10-minute plays addressing bullying “between and among young people, their parents and siblings” from various perspectives — the bullies, the bullied and the bystanders. Issues addressed include gender, sexuality, physical condition, social status and more — plus ways technology has changed the nature and scope of bullying.

“Bullying is aggressive behavior intended to harm or show power over another person that is repeared over time,” according to Susan Sugerman, M.D., M.P.H., an adolescent medicine physician who wrote the book’s forward. Sugerman is also president and co-founder of Girls to Women Health and Wellness in Dallas. “Bullies,” she adds, “have a strong need to show their dominance over others or to get their own way.”

“Victims of bullying tend to be children who are less popular or new to a situation,” according to Sugerman. Youth with academic, physical, or social ‘differences’ may be at particular risk of being bullied — as are those who don’t conform to gender norms. “Victims,” adds Sugerman, “tend not to get along well with others, have few friends, and have low self-esteem.”

But why choose plays as a way to tackle the topic? “One way to approach such a universal problem,” says Habjan, “is to get it out into the open and provide young people with strategies to deal with it in creative and empowering ways.” And Sugerman concurs that “When art can be used to improve, not just imitate, life, we are all better off.”

Two of the 24 pieces in “The Bully Plays” were written by playwrights-in residence at Childsplay, a Tempe-based theater company specializing in “professional theatre for young audiences and families” currently celebrating its 35th season.

“Gasp, Farrah & Monster” was written by José Cruz González, whose “Tomás and the Library Lady” (based on Pat Mora’s book) opens April 7 at Tempe Center for the Arts. “The Bully Pulpit” was written by Dwayne Hartford, whose “The Color of Stars” opens a world premiere run at TCA April 22.

The diversity of plays included in this collection mirrors the breadth and depth of real life experiences facing today’s children and teens. There’s school violence, cyberbullying, suicide and more. Settings include ancient Greece, a teen girl’s bedroom, a school on lockdown, a circus, a courtroom and others. Each play lists characters, setting and time — making staging the works easy in theater, classroom or community settings. Cast size varies from two to 25+.

Titles include “Bystander Blues” (Trish Lindberg), “Flash Mob” (Elizabeth Wong), “The New Kid” (Richard Dresser) and “What Goes Around” (D.W. Gregory). Though written to be performed by and for young audiences, they’re also helpful for introducing student to reading works of theater and inspiring youth to try their own hand at playwriting. Most importantly, they serve as conversation starters.

Long before “bullying” landed front and center in the national dialogue, Mary Pipher, Ph.D. addressed tough issues facing adolescent girls in “Reviving Ophelia,” the first of eight books filled with insights gleaned from cultural anthropology and clinical psychology. Pipher describes “The Bully Plays” as “a tasty antidote to our toxic teen culture.”

“This collection of plays is funny, sad, powerful and important,” says Pipher. “Bullying is a catch-phrase for treating others as less than human. All of these plays help teenagers develop their moral imagination and see that there is no us/them. There is only  us.”

– Lynn

Note: For additional bullying prevention resources, visit Teaching Tolerance and the Anti-Defamation League. Click here for details about a March 30 screening of the film “Bully” at the Phoenix Film Festival.

Coming up: A teacher tale, Student art exhibits

Update: Click here to read “The Defenders” by Sharon L. Green. The article, which appears in the May/June 2012 issue of “American Theatre” magazine, addresses theater works that tackle bullying. 5/2/12

Got scripts?

New works festivals present great opportunities for writers and audiences

Jason Tremblay of Austin won last year’s EVCT aspiring playwrights contest with “Queen Zixi of Ix, The Story of the Magic Cloak” — which was performed by East Valley Children’s Theatre just last month. It’s the adaptation of an L. Frank Baum story about two young children forced to live with a greedy aunt who moves them from country to city in search of work — and the adventures that help them bring happiness and prosperity to everyone in their new land.

Second place in last year’s EVCT playwriting contest went to Drew Ignatowski of Gilbert for “Moonprince,” and third place went to Texan Bobbi A. Chukran of Leander for “Princess Primrose & the Curse of the Big Sleep.” Cash prizes go to the top three winners each year, and the winning play is produced by EVCT (assuming it meets their criteria for performance). The deadline for 2012 submissions is Fri, March 15.

New Carpa Theater Co. recently issued a call for scripts inspired by the legacy of the civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers Union and contemporary social justice issues. They’re looking for works to present during a short plays festival they expect to hold in late May/early June as well as October. Think 5- to 10-minute stage plays, monologues, play excerpts and performance pieces. Scripts are due April 20, and can be submitted in either Spanish or English.

James E. Garcia, producing artistic director for the company, notes that eight to 10 pieces will be selected by a panel of seven local playwrights, writers and producers for staging at the festival. Additional works may also be presented for festival goers. Garcia describes the festival as “a non-partisan, grassroots, community-based project” designed to give theater artists and audiences “an opportunity to express their concerns regarding some of the most compelling human and civil rights issues of our time” — including those effecting immigrants, women and people of color.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is now considering plays for its 2013 New American Playwrights Project. Scripts submitted for consideration must be postmarked by Nov 1, 2012. Three works (all with mature content) are being presented during the 2012 series directed by Charles L. Metten — “The Greater Love” by Frankie Little Hardin, “Turquoise Wind” by Kurt Proctor and “Play Desdemona” by Daniel Hintzsche.

Those of you who favor watching new works rather than writing them can enjoy the 15th annual Hormel New Works Festival being presented July 8-22 by Phoenix Theatre. The festival features staged readings performed by professional actors.

Phoenix Theatre also holds a “2nd Draft Series” designed to further the development of select plays presented during the Hormel New Works Festival. Three plays will get the “2nd draft” treatment in coming weeks and months — including Richard Warren’s “Pollywogs” (March 24), Kurt Shineman’s “Mother’s Milk” (April 21) and Scott McCarrey’s “The Wilds” (May 19).

The Arizona Women’s Theatre Company presents its 6th annual Pandora Festival of New Works May 18-20 at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It features full-length plays, one-act plays and 10-minute plays written by Arizona women.

Theatre Artists Studio in Scottsdale is home to the “New Play Series and Reader’s Theatre.” Up next in their new play series is “4″ by Terry Youngren (March 17). Their next reader’s theater will be presented April 23 by Drea Pruseau.

A Childsplay world-premiere read of Dwayne Hartford’s “The Color of Stars” comes to The Temple Lounge in Tucson Sat, April 14 as part of the Arizona Theatre Company’s Café Bohemia” series. The play’s described as “a touching story about life in America during World War II with modern-day parallels about the costs of war both overseas and at home.”

Folks who prefer seeing plays fully staged and polished will be pleased to know that “The Color of Stars” is being performed by Childsplay April 22-May 20 at Tempe Center for the Performing Arts.

– Lynn

Coming up: Frankly speaking, So you want to be a playwright…

Once upon a theater camp

Aaron Zweiback performs in Green Eggs & Ham with The Phoenix Symphony on St. Patrick's Day

I was reminded while reading Mala Blomquist’s post this morning that spring break camps will soon be upon us, and was busy trolling for camps with an arts and culture twist when interrupted by a call from 12-year-old actor and ASA student Aaron Zweiback, whose theater teachers include Xanthia Walker.

I first met Zweiback last summer when my daughter Lizabeth, who now studies acting in NYC, was a teacher assistant with Childsplay Academy in Tempe. She’d invited me to see the final performance of a summer workshop with a “Hairspray” theme. Zweiback was one of several campers performing snippets of the musical for family and friends — and his Edna a la bathrobe was a hoot. He’s also done theater camps with Phoenix Theatre.

I ran into Zweiback after a recent Valley Youth Theatre performance of “Charlotte’s Web” — during which he rocked the rat role — and put fist to ear with the typical “call me” sign after chatting with his dad. In a rather spooky coincidence, I’d been wondering earlier this morning whether he’d ever have time to actually pick up a phone.

Today was the day, and the call couldn’t have been better timed. Turns out Zweiback is performing in several shows I’ll be seeing in coming days and weeks. I learned yesterday that I’ll need a little snip to a torn part of my left knee, but decided to postpone all things arthroscopy for another two weeks in order to keep my review calendar mostly intact.

Aaron Zweiback recently performed in Charlotte's Web at Valley Youth Theatre

So life looks like this for me and my knee: See Zweiback and others perform in “Gypsy” at Phoenix Theatre this weekend, limp my way through a trip to visit Lizabeth over spring break, then catch a returning flight in the wee hours that gets me home just in time to hit another Zweiback gig — The Phoenix Symphony performing “Green Eggs and Ham.” Then squeeze in the surgery thing (with a doc who took his kids to see a friend from the Valley perform in “Grease” on Broadway a few years ago). I’m told the wait won’t worsen what ails me.

Turns out “Green Eggs and Ham” includes all sorts of amazing folks from Valley stages. ASA teacher and renowned Valley actor Toby Yatso, with whom both Lizabeth and Zweiback have studied voice, is narrating the story. Zweiback does his “boy soprano” thing as “Sam I Am” and shared that the theatrical piece of the concert is being blocked, choreographed and directed by Bobb Cooper, VYT’s producing artistic director.

There’s another Sam in Zweiback’s life as well — an actor named Sam Primack whose little mittens I once guarded with care as backstage mom for a Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “Oliver.” He and Zweiback were in “A Christmas Story” at Phoenix Theatre earlier this season, and both are cast in Childsplay’s world premiere production of Dwayne Hartford’s “The Color of Stars.”

Sam Primack poses with a VYT fan after performing in Charlotte's Web

After Zweiback shared a bit about auditioning for all these shows, I invited him to write a guest blog with audition tips for young actors — and he graciously agreed. It takes a generous spirit to share one’s own “secrets to success” and Zweiback certainly has one. I fully expect to see him performing on Broadway stages one day, and hope he’ll also keep an eye out for opportunities to audition for roles in works by William Shakespeare where his intellect and gift for comedy would shine.

If the ticket fairies are working in my favor, I’ll be able to enjoy the work of another Valley-trained actor while in NYC next week. Nick Cartell, who has performed with VYT, Phoenix Theatre and other Arizona companies makes his Broadway debut this month in a revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Katie Czajkowksi and Aaron Zweiback after a Childsplay summer camp performance based on the musical Hairspray

I’m also looking forward to the Homestead Playhouse production of “Holes,” being performed at Copper Ridge School in Scottsdale March 28-30, because another young performer I met after the Childsplay “Hairspray” camp performance landed the warden role. Katie’s mom, Deb Czajkowski, recently got in touch to share the happy news — and her thoughts on the many benefits of theater for youth.

I hope those of you still wondering what your children or teens might enjoy doing over spring break will do a little theater camp legwork. One day, perhaps, you’ll get to turn to your child and share the old theater adage for good luck — “Break a leg!” Just try to keep your own body parts intact in the meantime…

– Lynn

Note: Click here to read Mala Blomquist’s post on spring break camps and here to learn about all sorts of summer camps. Find additional spring break camps at Voices Studio, Creative Stages Youth Theatre and Mesa Arts Center (if you’ve got one, send me the scoop at rakstagemom@gmail.com).

Coming up: Spring break NYC-style, Hometown boy makes Broadway debut

To protect and preserve

Yolanda London, Eric Boudreau and Colin Ross in Childsplay's "Rock the Presidents"

With all the political bantering these days, I sometimes worry that the office of president isn’t getting the respect it deserves. So I was thrilled when Childsplay’s Sunday preview of “Rock the Presidents” at Tempe Center for the Arts opened with a rap number called “Hail to the Chiefs” — which recounts the name of each president while reinforcing our duty as Americans to protect and preserve the highest office in the land.

Think what you will of any given president, but know that the office is worthy of respect and dignity, and we do ourselves no favors by attempting to diminish it. “Rock the Presidents” is a perfectly non-partisan look at those who have served, which makes clear both their humanity and their dedication to the nation. It’s easy to sit back and criticize, and so little that’s worthy comes of it.

Better to teach our children to honor those who step up and lead, and to remind them that they too have the power to make a difference. Public service is a noble calling. And being an informed, engaged citizen is essential. These are the messages conveyed throughout “Rock the Presidents,” a musical salute to all 43 presidents featuring book and lyrics by Dwayne Hartford and music by Sarah Roberts.

Roberts plays guitar on the soundtrack, as does Jason Brown. Other musicians include Jonathan Ivie (piano and keyboard), Scott Miner (bass), Mark Stolper (drums), David Dickinson (Violin) and Scott Leader (ukelele and guitar). Jonathan Ivie is musical director for the work, which features everything from rock and rap to country and calypso. Think concert meets classroom.

The “Rock the Presidents” set, designed by Holly Windingstad, is a mix of stately and sparkly red, white and blue elements with a giant screen in the center onto which images of presidents and related fare from speeches to statues are projected throughout the show thanks to projection design by Limitrophe Films. It adds a fabulously nostalgic feel while upping the show’s educational value for children and teens.

Eric Boudreau, Yolanda London and Colin Ross rapping "Hail to the Chiefs"

Eric Bourdeau (Harry), Yolanda London (Amy) and Colin Ross (Ted) open “Rock the Presidents” donning black secret service gear by costume designer D. Daniel Hollingshead as they appear to sing into tiny spy mics hidden in the ends of their sleeves. They’re capable quick change artists who also rock general, cowboy, hippie and other vibes during the 90-minute gig that features choreography by Molly Lajoie. Think line dancing to shades of disco, all done in good taste.

Director Anthony Runfola strikes a perfect balance between rock concert and musical theater production. Lighting design by Tim Monson plays up the rock star vibe, as do cast member shenanigans with standing mics, high fives with children seated in the front row and shouts like “Thank you Tempe!” Their first crowd laughed and clapped with enthusiasm, rising to a standing ovation after the final number titled “Are You a President-to-be?”

The fact that every American president to date has been a man isn’t lost on Hartford, who included plenty of dialogue and lyrics hailing women who’ve made a difference while encouraging girls in the audience to aspire to the country’s highest office. But the favorite number by far, which closes the first act, was a little ditty on presidential pets from ordinary to odd called “They Got a Dog.”

The second act opens with “Not Made of Stone,” performed against the backdrop of an image of Mount Rushmore. It’s an ode to each president’s humanity which, when coupled with “I’m Not All Bad,” reminds folks that every president has both accomplishments and failures. Presidents, you see, are people too. In many ways, they’re like me and you.

Presidents we’ve lost are remembered in “What Could Have Been?,” while the contributions made by presidents after leaving office are celebrated in “I Am More Than Four Years.” Two rounds of “The Presi-tron” test audience member knowledge of presidential trivia, and “Who in the World is Millard Fillmore?” pays tribute to presidents too often forgotten.

Colin Ross in Rock the Presidents, being performed in Tempe through March 4

The song “John and Tom,” which praises the mutual civility demonstrated by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson despite conflicting ideas, feels most relevant for today’s society seeped in supercharged sniping. We don’t have to agree on everything to get along, or to get things done.

My own favorite song is “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” inspired by FDR’s first inaugural address. Hartford says his greatest hope is that folks will be entertained by “Rock the Presidents.” That’s clearly the case. But I suspect something more will happen too, as those who “Rock the Presidents” with Childsplay reaffirm their responsibility to protect and preserve.

– Lynn

Note: The creative team for “Rock the Presidents” also includes Christopher Neumeyer (sound design). Samantha Monson serves as stage manager and Jenny Millinger serves as dramaturge. David Saar is Childsplay’s founder and artistic director, and Steve Martin serves as managing director.

Coming up: Let’s Play!

Photos: Heather Hill

Rock the Presidents!

Childsplay's "Rock the Presidents" set designed by Holly Winginstad

Though Dwayne Hartford and Anthony Runfola of Childsplay in Tempe are both history buffs, they hadn’t realized that one-fourth of America’s presidents were generals until working on “Rock the Presidents” — a 90-minute musical celebration of the 43 who’ve served in the country’s highest office during the course of 223 years. Or that presidential pets have included a cow, bear cub, alligator and tiger.

The world premiere of “Rock the Presidents” takes place this weekend at Tempe Center for the Arts. The original Childsplay production, in the works for about two years now, features book and lyrics by Dwayne Hartford, an associate artist and playwright-in-residence with Childsplay. Also music by Sarah Roberts, who’s known Hartford for many years thanks to a common thread back in Maine.

Runfola, production manager for Childsplay, directs the work — which has music but no linear story like something you’d experience with a more traditional work of musical theater. Instead, it’s akin to 26 two-minute plays set to music. Think rap, rock, country, folk, blues and more — all part of a CD folks will be able to buy at the show.

Seems neither Runfola, Hartford nor Roberts remember learning more than a few basic facts about the biggies like Washington and Lincoln as they were growing up. All hope children who experience “Rock the Presidents” will leave feeling a little more interested in history. And more connected to history as well. “We don’t look at the past as often as we should to guide us towards the future,” reflects Runfola.

Still, Hartford says he “wanted politics to stay out of this.” He’s not interested in vilifying anyone. There’s a reason he chose to “rock” rather than “mock” the presidents — despite his experience with writing parody. “I grew up in a family that encourages participation in civics and being aware of your part in the community,” recalls Hartford.

“Our presidents were real people,” says Hartford. “They aren’t just statues.” Sure, they all made mistakes. But what he’s celebrating through the work is “their choice to get involved and make a difference.” Hartford sees a common thread binding everyone who’s held the office of president — a desire to help the country, and a belief that they can do just that. “They all believed in the country,” says Hartford, “and the possibilities.” They were optimists.

Both Roberts and Runfola praise Hartford’s decision to portray some of our more recent presidents as children. The approach takes the focus off particular aspects of their politics, and places it on their humanity. And it’s a powerful way to reinforce the show’s main message for children. Anyone, including you, can become president one day.

Your first chance to see “Rock the Presidents” will be this Sunday, Feb. 12 at 4pm — which is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It’s a preview performance so tickets are just $12. Regular performances, recommended for ages seven and up, will run Feb. 18-March 4. Folks who attend the 4pm performance of “Rock the Presidents” on Sat., Feb. 25 can enjoy an election workshop before and backstage tour after.

A Childsplay fundraiser on March 2 will feature a special VIP performance of “Rock the Presidents.” The “Rock the Presidents State Dinner” will raise funds for Childsplay arts-in-education programs. “Rock the Presidents” is also available for school tours (grades 2-12) March 13-May 25. Click here for details — and watch for news of the “Rock the Presidents” national tour.

– Lynn

Note: You can enjoy a free MP3 download of the show’s opening number, “Hail to the Chiefs,” a rap song featuring the names of all 44 presidents — click here for details.

Coming up: Favorite presidents — plus presidential pets

“The Borrowers”

A cup of sugar. A gelatin mold. A casserole dish. Neighbors used to borrow such things from one another all the time. What we borrow changes, but the act of borrowing never seems to go out of style.

I’m guilty of borrowing all sorts of books that never made their way back to original owners, but I’ve loaned plenty of them too. Some books, like Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers,” seem too precious to share.

“The Borrowers” made its way to the big screen in a 1997 movie by the same name. The PG-13 flick, dismissed by some because of its sometimes crude humor, was directed by Peter Hewitt and starred John Goodman.

British actor Hugh Laurie, now known to most Americans for his leading role in the television series “House,” appeared in the film as “Police Officer Steady.”

Fond as I am of Laurie, I suspect I’ll enjoy Childsplay’s live performance of “The Borrowers” a whole lot more than the film. The Childsplay production, which opens April 30 at Tempe Center for the Arts, is directed by Dwayne Hartford.

“The Borrowers” was adapted for the stage by British playwright Charles Way. It’s the tale of a tiny family living under the floorboards of another family’s home — and the adventures that ensue when someone living below makes her way to higher ground.

“I try to create work,” writes Way, “that does not preach, that examines the pressures under which we live through story and metaphor, that is fun, sometimes dangerous, but always I trust, humane and hopeful.” Sounds like much of the work I’ve seen Childsplay perform through the years.

Childsplay presents “The Borrowers” at 1pm and 4pm every Saturday and Sunday between April 30-May 22. An ASL interpreted performance takes place Sun, May 15, at 1pm.

You can jump online in the meantime to learn more about the show, the actors and the wealth of Childsplay offerings — from school tours to summer classes.

And you can get your tickets to what I suspect will be one of the Valley’s most creative shindigs of the season — the May 6 “Childsplay Celebrates Its Greatest Hits” gala designed to support the company’s many arts-in-education programs, which “serve one in five Arizona school children each year.”

Let your toddlers borrow the pots and pans. Let your preschoolers borrow the lipstick and high heels. Let your teens borrow the car.

But give your children the things that really matter. Imagination. Dreams. Adventure. Curiosity. They’re all waiting for you at Childsplay.

– Lynn

Note: Click here to learn how your children can experience a tour of “The Borrowers” set – and how your family can enjoy a workshop exploring the secrets of shadow theater with visual effects artist Andrés Alcalá (you’ll learn to create and use shadow puppets — and even take home your own shadow theater).

Coming up: Whatever works

Tough choices

I’ve faced some tough choices lately…

What to pack for a theater trip to San Diego. Whether to try the pepperoni pizza or the rosemary chicken during my first trip to the new cafeteria at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

These are choices plenty of folks never have the luxury of facing, and I feel grateful for them. Last weekend’s tough choices involved Valley theater productions.

Lizabeth and I hoped to get to “No Way to Treat a Lady” at Phoenix Theatre (we heard the leads were phenomenal), “Unstoppable Me!” performed by Cookie Company at Scottsdale’s Greasepaint Youtheatre (we love the casting) and “THIS” — being performed by Actors Theatre at the Herberger Theater Center.

Artwork by Anthony Ulinski

A friend we met for coffee at “Urban Beans” in midtown Phoenix no doubt meant to be helpful when reminding us that “Devil Boys from Beyond” is also on tap these days, but the choice there was a bit easier to make.

“Watching naked men or supporting women playwrights?,” I mused. “THIS,” written by Melissa James Gibson, won out — and Lizabeth ended up going the next day while I took Jennifer, my 19-year-old, to lunch at Chili’s near ASU.

Seems each time I’m there I remind my children that Chili’s was a favorite haunt when I was pregnant. “So,” asked Jennifer, “does this mean I will be getting a new baby brother or sister?” Another not so tough choice. I have a cat.

Lizabeth was quite fond of “THIS” and I hope to share some of her thoughts on the show in a future post. But for now I find myself pondering the weekend ahead, which offers another dizzying array of options in the arts and culture department.

There’s a film called “nomadak tx” playing at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix on Sat, Feb 5, at 2:30pm — which profiles musicians who play an instrument built for two, only to discover it’s a meeting point between both two beings and two cultures.

There’s “The Crucible” — directed by Childsplay’s Debra K. Stevens — being performed Feb 3-5 at Mesa Community College’s Theatre Outback. Every student reads “The Crucible” in school, making this a fun and educational choice.

Lizabeth worked on “The Crucible” during a weeklong Childsplay workshop with Stevens and playwright Dwayne Hartford, which truly enriched her perspective on the Arthur Miller play she was already very familiar with and fond of. 

And yes — it is time already to begin making tough choices about spring break and summer camps. Hence the RAK Camp Fair coming up later this month. If you wait too long to choose, the choice will be made for you as the best camps fill up early on.

I should mention that we faced another tough choice last weekend during our first exploration of “Bards Books” — located next to our latest coffee grind find. Whether to buy all the treasures we found on the spot or wait until we could bring in some no longer needed titles for trade. We chose immediate gratification.

Our latest tough choice was simply whether to get flu shots in the left or right arm. Thank goodness we got that over with, because we’ve got bigger and better choices to make this weekend. And we’re grateful for each and every one.

– Lynn

Note: It’s an especially busy time for theater companies presenting shows for youth, all of whom need your support to continue their good works. Please visit the RAK calendar online to see your many choices of family-friendly performance art in the Valley this month.

Coming up: SCC theatre students hit the road, Pondering 5oo posts

AriZoni awards a la Lynn & Liz

AriZoni 2009-2010 winner "The Goats Gruff" by East Valley Children's Theatre

Talented actors at all ages and stages. An honest-to-goodness hilarious accountant. Women whose sign language sings. A professor who specializes in stage combat.

They all came together Monday evening at the Tempe Center for the Arts for the 2009-2010 AriZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence, produced in association with Childsplay.

The event, a celebration of 20 years for the AriZoni organization, was hosted by Katie McFadzen of Childsplay and Ron May of Stray Cat Theatre. Katie was the one in the red dress.

The evening, meant to honor the finest of Valley theater from the previous season, had three “acts” — a youth awards ceremony, an adult awards ceremony and an after party (held at the Fiesta Resort Conference Center). What happens at the after party stays at the after party.

Both ceremonies opened with a video montage of Valley theater productions through the years and a performance of “If They Could See Us Now” — with hosts McFadzen and May exercising enormous restraint in saving the raciest content for act two.

During the youth awards, a bit about dancing cheek to cheek included only a charming bit of face to face time, but the adult ceremony had them bumping cheeks of a different sort (tastefully, of course). The adult ceremony also included more subtle (and not so subtle) political humor.

With the rest of the nation poking fun at Arizona politicians, pink boxer sorts and such, it only seems fair that we reserve the right to poke fun at ourselves.

Speaking of poking, the topic was one of many covered by McFadzen and May during their reading of the rules for the ceremony. “You may not poke me on stage,” quipped May, “or on Facebook.”

The duo also noted that acceptance speeches should be “deliciously short” at 20 seconds or less – although an exception was granted for a young man whose thank yous consisted of a long string of showtune lyrics.

It was sometimes difficult to hear the names of award winners because of the roar of the crowd. I remember Theater Works Youth Works being particularly rowdy at last year’s youth ceremony, but I’d have to give this year’s “loud and proud” award to Spotlight Youth Theatre – who have a real “the little theater that could” vibe.

I promise myself every year that I’m going to use my very best audience member etiquette — and there are plenty of times when I pull it off. But Lizabeth and I couldn’t help ourselves when one of her teachers at ASA, Toby Yatso, won two awards. I fully expect to see him holding a Tony Award one day because, as Lizabeth once told me, “he sparkles.” (To the people who sat behind, beside and in front of us — please pardon our enthusiasm.)

“Thank you mama for being here again to always support me,” chimed Yatso during one of his acceptance speeches. Plenty of award recipients thanked parents and fellow professionals, while some thanked their children for getting them involved with theater and inspiring them in a myriad of ways.

Several spouses (in all combinations of genders) thanked partners who worked alongside them at the theater or tended to home and family so the other could do their theater rat thing. My favorite was a gentleman who thanked his wife for staying home alone most nights to play “Halo” so he could indulge the lure of greasepaint.

Especially touching moments included the presentation of scholarships to three students studying theater, one of whom (Chelsea Groen) Lizabeth recalls acting with at Greasepaint Youtheatre as a young child. I’ll write a bit more about distinguished service and outstanding contribution honorees in a future post because their accomplishments are worthy of a higher word count.

Attendees paused for a moving moment of silence during the adult ceremony to remember three members of the theater arts community who died during the past year — Eleanor Hofmann, Scott Jeffers and Noah Todd — reflecting together that ‘there are now more stars in the sky to light our way and guide our hearts.’

I suspect we could all have some fun inventing our own awards based on Monday night’s ceremonies. My “shiniest” award goes to Katie McFadzen for a sparkling silver bustier (likely borrowed from Betty White) and Zachary Tatus, who donned a gold lame jumpsuit to perform the role of “Conrad” in a number from Spotlight Youth Theatre’s “Bye Bye Birdie.”

The “funniest five seconds” award goes to McFadzen and May for popping up through round holes in the stage to reveal a Viking headpiece and clown wig before the presentation of awards for hair and make-up design. Their use of a Childsplay prop in a rather unconventional manner might win second place — though the competition was stiff.

My “cuter than spit” award would have to go to AriZoni winner Zoe Whiting of “The Goats Gruff” with East Valley Children’s Theatre, who beamed alongside the podium as a tiny bundle of sincerity and enthusiam. I like her style.

Big winners in the 2009-2010 youth theater category included EVCT’s “The Goats Gruff” (Overall Production-Play), Spotlight Youth Theatre’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” (Overall Production-Play) and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Overall Production-Musical), and Theater Works Youth Works’ “Beauty and the Beast” (Overall Production-Musical).

In the adult category, winners among non-contracted theaters included ASU Lyric Opera Theatre’s “The Rocky Horror Show” (Overall Production-Musical), Nearly Naked Theatre’s “Evil Dead: The Musical” (Overall Production-Musical), Desert Foothills Theater’s “Unnecessary Farce” (Overall Production-Play), Stray Cat Theatre’s “Speech & Debate” (Overall Production-Play) and Theater Works’ “All My Sons” (Overall Production-Play).

Winners among contracted theaters included Actors Theatre’s “No Child” (Overall Production-Play) and Phoenix Theatre’s “The Light in the Piazza” (Overall Production-Musical).

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Childsplay’s McFadzen performing in “Speech and Debate” and Dwayne Hartford (now appearing in “A Year With Frog and Toad”) directing “The Rocky Horror Show.” Watch for a future post toying with the many talents of Childsplay artists on and off the Childsplay stage.

Click here for a listing of winners in each youth theater and adult theater award category – and to join the AriZoni mailing list if you’d like to receive e-mail alerts including monthly newsletters. It’s a great way to stay informed about Valley theater offerings, resources and opportunities.

– Lynn

Coming up: Real-life high school musicals, Social justice takes the stage, More season previews, The fine art of sign language, Fun with film, Arts organization fundraisers