Tag Archives: Still Life with Iris

Transformation tales

Art meets architecture at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (Photo by Lynn Trimble)

The Herberger Theater Center, already a jewel among Valley theater venues, underwent a beautiful transformation last year — with changes that included the installation of this shimmering sculpture of light that hangs through a circle in the center of the lobby.

But I’ll be enjoying a circle of a different sort at the Herberger Theater Center this weekend. It’s the Arizona premiere of Annie Baker’s play titled “Circle Mirror Transformation” — which follows the misadventures of students in a small acting class at a community center.

I’m especially eager to see the performance of one actor in particular — Maren Maclean in the role of acting student Theresa. In real life, Maren is a mom and acting teacher extraordinaire.

Maren Maclean, now performing in Circle Mirror Transformation, with my daughter Lizabeth

I know this because my daughter Lizabeth studied acting with Maclean for many years — at Arizona School for the Arts, Scottsdale Community College and in private coaching sessions.

Lizabeth is beginning a transformation of her own — from high school theater student to college student in an acting B.F.A. program back East. I’ll share word of her college decision in a future post if she gives me the green light.

For now, I am delighted to have the opportunity to watch Maclean and the other Valley actors featured in Actors Theatre’s “Circle Mirror Transformation.” I know the power they’ve had in transforming the lives of students and audiences for years.

Maren Maclean in a scene from Circle Mirror Transformation (Image from photo by John Groseclose)

We think too often that NYC has somehow cornered the market on all that is good and true in theater. But tonight, as I’m feeling a bit teary-eyed with thoughts of sending Lizabeth off to the big city, I know her real transformation started right here in the Valley.

She’s been nurtured, inspired and challenged for years — as a person and an artist — by many in the Arizona theater community. Childsplay. Greasepaint Youtheatre. Phoenix Theatre. And others whose work has touched her along the way.

“Circle Mirror Transformation,” though full of humorous moments, offers profound insights as well. Into human nature. Into our own personal foibles and follies. Into what people can accomplish together. Into what we must undertake alone.

The cast of Circle Mirror Transformation with Actors Theatre of Phoenix (Photo by John Groseclose)

This weekend, as I experience the Actors Theatre production of “Circle Mirror Transformation,” I’ll be thinking of the little girl whose time at the Herberger Theater Center has been such an important part of her transformation to young adult and blossoming artist.

I know the cast of “Circle Mirror Transformation” will deliver a powerful performance, and suspect those who experience their work will leave the theater feeling their own taste of transformation.

– Lynn

Note: Those who attend the Sun, May 1 performance of “Circle Mirror Transformation” are invited to stay after the show for a free talkback with cast and creative team members — who can share their own insights about transforming Baker’s script into their own performance of the piece.

Coming up: Remembering the Holocaust, May art picks, Town hall meets arts and culture, International Museum Day

An ode to “Frog & Toad”

I find myself in a bit of a bind. Recently I attended a preview performance of Childsplay’s production of “A Year With Frog and Toad” — featuring a strong ensemble of Childsplay artists including Dwayne Hartford (“Toad”) and D. Scott Withers (“Frog”), pictured above during the show’s final dress rehearsal.

I’ve since developed a nearly uncontrollable urge to tell every parent I see that they need to hop right over to the Tempe Center for the Arts.

The show runs Sept 18 to Oct 16 — Saturdays and Sundays at both 1pm and 4pm — and is recommended for ages four and up. It’s directed by David Saar, Childsplay’s founder and artistic director, whose work has earned both national and international acclaim.

Sing along at home to the "Frog and Toad" Broadway cast recording

I realize, of course, that I can’t simply run through the streets shouting an ode to “Frog and Toad.” So I’m toying with more subtle means of making my point.

Bumper stickers? Buttons? A bullhorn, perhaps? A “Frog and Toad” ballad. A duo of “Frog and Toad” busts. A billboard, perhaps?

But why so smitten?

Childsplay was a sort of first love for me — one of my earliest experiences as a parent with truly exceptional performance art for children and families.

Experiencing their performance of Steven Dietz’s “Still Life With Iris” at the Herberger Theater Center many years ago was akin to holding a newborn baby in all its splendor. Such joy. Such wonder.

I felt that way again many years later when Lizabeth and I went to see David Saar’s “The Yellow Boat,” a play inspired by the life and artistry of his son Benjamin, who was born with hemophilia and died in 1987 of AIDS-related complications following a blood transfusion.

Through the years, I’ve been impressed by a number of Childsplay productions. Their work is timely without being trendy, profound without being preachy.

The original "Frog and Toad" of Lobel's classic stories

So it is with “A Year With Frog and Toad” — based on a series of books written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel.

This Childsplay production features not only Withers and Hartford, but also Yolanda London, Molly Lajoie, Katie McFadzen and Tony Castellanos (who recently toured with “Jesus Christ Superstar” featuring Ted Neely).

There are lessons to be learned about friendship and patience. It’s full of wisdom, but also whimsy. The crowd I saw it with — ages preschool to parent — giggled and squealed with delight throughout the performance.

The music (by Robert Beale, who majored in jazz studies at ASU) is lively and diverse — from bluegrass to jazz. The scenic design (by Edie Whitsett) is beautiful — with bright, popping colors and seamless execution when the time comes to roll, raise, lower or slide. Spring flowers pop up from the ground. Gentle snowflakes fall down from the sky.

“Frog” and “Toad” are best friends who seem to do just about everything together. They swim, sip tea, ride sleds, fly kites, bake cookies (getting a bit carried away in the quality control department). Other critters populate their playtime (perhaps real, perhaps a dream) – including a snail who slowly manages to find a new calling in life.

Both the acting and singing in Childsplay’s “A Year With Frog and Toad” are exceptional, rivaling the quality of many a touring Broadway show I’ve seen through the years. Ditto for the costumes (designed by Karen Ann Ledger) – once again worthy of their own exhibition.

Childsplay’s current production of “A Year With Frog and Toad” also features music direction by Alan Ruch (who wrote words and music for “The Yellow Boat”), choreography by Michael Barnard (now in his 12th season as producing artistic director for Phoenix Theatre) and lighting design by Rick Paulsen (who recently lit Childsplay’s production of “The BFG”).

Sound design is by Christopher Neumeyer, projection design is by Anthony Runfola (who rocks it by adding a techo-friendly touch that’ll appeal to screen-savvy kids) and stage management is by Samantha Reis.

Poster for the Broadway production of "A Year With Frog and Toad"

“A Year With Frog and Toad” enjoyed a brief run on Broadway during 2003, garnering a Tony nomination for “Best Musical” as well as nominations for brothers Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics).

You know, maybe I’m on to something there with the whole Broadway/NYC thing. Anybody know how I can get my ode to Childsplay’s “Frog and Toad” on the giant screen in NYC’s Times Square?

–Lynn

Note: Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe will feature a teaching artist from Childsplay reading from Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” series at their “Explore-a-Story” family event on Sept 25 at 10am. The event is free and includes dramatic play that’ll guide children through “some of Frog and Toad’s best adventures.” Children and teens can enjoy training with the talented artists of Childsplay through various workshops and camps — click here to learn more.

Coming up: Musings on theater award season in Arizona, Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month

The sun, moon and stars

I was working in the non-profit world when the Helios Education Foundation was established. I recall early conversations with a key player gathering information on Valley programs and priorities as the foundation worked to refine and reflect its focus.

How lovely to learn several years later that they’ve recognized the value of theater in the lives of youth and the world of education.

Childsplay, a Tempe-based theater company for young audiences, is one of three Helios Education Foundation grant recipients for programs aligned with the foundation’s “Early Childhood Theory of Change.”

Grants were awarded to three organizations for the “development of programs that are designed to strengthen the literacy and language acquisition knowlegdge and education of early childhood teachers, professionals, and other providers working with children ages birth to 5.”

Paradise Valley Community College, in partnership with Central Arizona College, also received a prestigious Helios grant.

Childsplay’s project will work with early educators to “integrate drama strategies and writing/reading curricula” to support “language acquisition and emergent literacy.”

I thought of the sun when learning of Childplay’s Helios grant, but another bit of Childsplay news took me back to the moon and stars of Childsplay’s extraordinary “Still Life with Iris” sets from so many years ago at the Herberger Theater Center.

I’ve never considered Childsplay anything less than a national treasure, and doubt it would be a stretch to say it shines just as brightly on the international stage.

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that Childsplay founder and artistic director David Saar will receive the 2010 Medallion Award from the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America at a ceremony to be held Aug. 6 in San Francisco.

The Medallion Luncheon will be held in conjunction with the annual convention of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education — which sounds like an ever-so-wonderful place to be. I got a twinkle in my eye just reviewing their workshop topics and featured speakers.

To enjoy your own glimpse of the sun, moon and stars, take your children to enjoy the exceptional work of Childsplay, which presents some of the very best “theater for everyone.”

— Lynn

Note: The Herberger Theater, where I first experienced the magic of Childsplay during a school field trip with my oldest daughter, is currently undergoing renovations. Info/tickets are now available for it Oct 1 “Grand Re-Opening Ceremony” and Oct 2 “Festival of the Arts.” Learn more at herbergertheater.org.

Coming up: The best of symphony, opera and other music for children

Beyond “Peter and the Wolf”

I saw Childsplay’s “Peter and the Wolf” this weekend, seated next to a lovely family from Mesa—mom, dad and two sons (ages 3 and 5). The mom, an ASU theater graduate, proudly shared that she teaches at a “blue ribbon school”—Entz Elementary in Mesa.

She’s a longtime Childsplay fan whose children have already enjoyed Childsplay classes and other productions. I chatted with her older son, clearly very bright and curious, during intermission. He seemed to be enjoying the show nearly as much as I was.

I asked the mom why she took her kids to see live theater. Why does it matter? She shared her own memories of growing up attending live theater, opera and symphony performances—and her desire for her own children to enjoy similar experiences.

She feels it’s a shame that more families aren’t attending live theater performances like “Peter and the Wolf.” When I asked her why this might be the case, she made two observations. First, that theater isn’t economically feasible for all families. Second, that folks who’ve never enjoyed live theater may not know what they’re missing.

“Peter and the Wolf” makes a perfect first theater experience for children ages three and up. Everything about it is kid-friendly (see yesterday’s post for details), but there’s plenty for grown-ups to enjoy too—including the dry wit of a dapper wolf, played by Jon Gentry (also the grandfather).

Gentry is an Associate Artist with Childsplay who’s been a full-time member of the acting company since 1982. If they put me in charge of nicknames he’d be Jon “The Gem” Gentry—given the strength of his acting and directing skills. Truly, the entire company is a treasure.

After Saturday’s performance the cast returned to the stage for a casual conversation with the audience about some of the show’s themes—like following rules. What rules, they asked young viewers, did Peter’s grandfather expect him to follow. Eager kids raised their hands, excitedly sharing their answers.

Next the cast asked why these rules were important, again garnering many zealous replies. How lovely when someone else enforces these principles we all work so hard to pass along to our children—and that they achieve it in a fun and friendly setting.

Soon the cast was sitting on the edge of the stage after inviting children and families to the front of the theater to ask questions, and a whole lot of really excited kids took them up on it.

I remember the first time Jennifer, our oldest daughter, attended a Childsplay performance as part of an elementary school field trip to the Herberger Theater Center. The play was “Still Life with Iris.” (Theater Works in Peoria will present their production of “Still Life with Iris” Feb. 18th-25th.)

Jennifer was tickled when Associate Artist D. Scott Withers called on her during the Q & A session after the show, asking the cast how they summoned the emotions needed for their roles.

Childsplay does something it calls “360º theatre”—enriching the theater-going experience before, at and during its shows. The program is sponsored by Banner Health Cardon Children’s Medical Center.

After seeing “Peter and the Wolf” families receive a “For the ride home…” activity guide featuring fun questions to consider on the way home and activities to try once you’re there. No hints here, folks—that would spoil your fun!

Although our experiences with Childsplay started with a single play, they didn’t end there. Lizabeth, our youngest daughter, has been enjoying Childsplay workshops and summer camps for years.

We’ve learned from experience that Childsplay classes often fill up quickly, so it’s best to check out their offerings as soon as they’re announced. Happily, information on Childsplay’s Summer Academy 2010 is already available on their website.

To learn more about arts-related and other camps in the Valley, attend the Raising Arizona Kids Camp Fair, coming to the Tesseract School Shea Campus on Saturday, Feb. 27th from 10am to 3pm.

If you know of a really cool theater, dance, music or visual arts camp, drop a line and let me know. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on “Peter and the Wolf.”

Happy theater-going!

–Lynn

Coming up: Conversations with Matthew Wiener, Producing Artistic Director for Actors Theatre (presenting the family-friendly production “Shipwrecked” at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix through Feb. 7th).