Tag Archives: Anthony Runfola

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

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Theater or Theatre?

My latest read, authored by a playwright and director who clearly favors the -re spelling

Grammar by committee. There’s far too much of that going around these days. I like to think I’m immune to it, but that’s only because I favor grammar by individual edict – my own. Blogging affords writers certain liberties in the name of what we call individual style or “voice.”

Theater companies seem to exercise a bit of the same artistic license when it comes to naming decisions. There’s Phoenix Theatre and Valley Youth Theatre of Phoenix, but also Theater Works in Peoria. 

So which one is right? This feels like a bit of a burning questions to those of us who play with words for a living. I’m not so sure that anybody else really cares. But that didn’t stop me from asking around.

When I checked in with a dozen or so theater professionals in the Valley, most shared a similar take on the issue. “Theater,” they told me, “refers to a place or venue.” But “theatre” refers to the art form.

Childsplay production manager Anthony Runfola suspects that this belief may stem from the fact that the Greek word for theater (theatron) means “a place for viewing.” 

Using this logic, I suppose one performs theatre in a theater. But I find that answer strangely unsatisfying. And Valley venues aren’t helping. Think Hale Theatre Centre in Gilbert, and Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.

So I did what most of us do when our questions garner answers we don’t particularly care for. I kept asking.

Chris Rhodes, managing director with the Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa wonders whether there might be a bit of a “snob factor” for some who insist they’ve got a “theatre” company rather than “theater” company.

Randy Messersmith, MFA — who serves as theatre arts director for Scottsdale Community College — says many in the profession use “theatre” as if to “somehow seem more important than the low lifes” who use “theater.” It’s not his take, but he’s seen the attitude before.

Messersmith also notes that people go to “Broadway theater” here in America but attend “The Theatre” when in England. Perhaps, he suggests, the two spellings should duel. He imagines them facing off and insisting “this language isn’t big enough for the both of us!”

Runfola says he was taught that “theatre” is the British spelling (likely from a similar word in French) and “theater” is the American spelling. It’s similar to the “colour” and “color” distinction, observes Runfola. Perhaps, he says, it was just a way for folks in the U.S. to differentiate themselves  from the British.

“I believe,” quips Runfola, “this all begins with Noah Webster and his preference for phonetic spellings…so we have him to thank for the confusion!” It’s evident in things like the title of an American magazine devoted to the craft of theater: American Theatre.  

“Personally, I prefer the –er spelling for no other reason than it’s how my high school theater teacher spelled it,” shares Runfola. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.” Runfola is a Chaparral High School alumni whose theater teacher there was Deborah Carrick.

In the end, Childsplay associate artist Debra K. Stevens helped me put it all in perspective. Turns out it’s not such a hot question after all outside of editor-world. The way you spell it doesn’t change the way you imagine, create or share it.

Still, there’s always the “thee-uh-tuh” option when all else fails. Just remember to point your pinky out when you say it.

— Lynn

Note: Raising Arizona Kids follows Associated Press style guidelines – which favor the use of “theater” in all cases except those that refer to a specific theater using “theatre” in its name.

Coming up: Dance meets visual arts, J is for Juneau — or Jersey