Tag Archives: school tours

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


“With Two Wings”

My mother loved the work of Lebanese-American artist Kahlil Gibran, especially his verses on various topics contained in “The Prophet.” The section titled “On Children” begins like this:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

I was reminded of these words, and my mother’s remarkable gift for creating both roots and wings, while watching a Childsplay performance of Anne Negri’s “With Two Wings” directed by Andrés Alcala.

It’s the tale of a boy who lives in the woods with his overprotective parents, though all the other families live in colonies. They’ve got lots of rules, all designed to keep the family safe.

Son Lyf (Nathan Dobson) seems content to follow them until he encounters an adventurous young girl named Meta (Kaleena Newman), who fuels his curiosity with tales of flight training. She’s Lyf’s first friend, and she’s a good one.

Meta has a thing for physics, often pondering the wonders and workings of aerodynamics, while Lyf has a gift for imagery and story. I love the deviation from “boys do science” and “girls do words” type thinking

Meta has a twin named Taur (John Moum) who’s quite the bully, and seems to fancy himself an investigative journalist. He uncovers handmade wings inside the workshop Lyf’s father has kept locked for years, and makes a startling discovery.

Lyf’s parents are “dodos” — a name given to those who can’t fly. When Taur starts name-calling, Meta insists that he stop. She teaches Lyf to fly as his anxious Mom (Kate Haas) and hopeful Dad (Jon Gentry) look on. “I’m here,” says Mom, “I’m always here.”

“With Two Wings” is a profound reminder that flying and falling is better than never trying to fly. That bystanders should defend those who are bullied. That some family rules may need to evolve over time. That growth rarely happens without taking risks.

It’s a lovely one hour piece that speaks to both children and adults, making good use of humor and never taking itself too seriously. “With Two Wings” elevates curiosity, individual differences, loyal friendships and trusting your instincts.

The cast of five is superb. Dobson’s Lyf is innocent and earnest, while Newman’s Meta is bright-eyed and confident. Gentry’s Dad is optimistic, while Haas’ Mom is a worrier. Moum’s Taur is a perfect portrayal of everything we love to hate about tabloid types.

The “With Two Wings” set designed by Kimb Williamson is simple — mainly nesting materials inspired by the works of artist Andy Goldworthy. So is lighting design by Tim Monson and sound design by Christopher Neumeyer. Both serve the story well without distracting from its beauty.

The most intriguing visual elements are costumes by D. Daniel Hollinghead, who designed the mechanism used for characters’ wings, and puppets. Thanks to puppets atop long sticks, no one has to pull a Cathy Rigby over the TCA stage.

“With Two Wings” is rich in dialogue we can all relate to. The play’s true beauty rests in its ability to inspire us to reflect on our own experiences with launching and letting go.

I got a little teary-eyed as Lyf learned to fly, thinking of our daughter Lizabeth being cast in her first theater production with Pace University, because I know Childsplay played a part in giving her wings.

I hope you’ll be just as inspired by Childsplay’s interpretation of Negri’s tender tale, and more reflections from “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran…

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

— Lynn

Note: Childsplay performs “With Two Wings” through Feb. 5 at Tempe Center for the Arts, and the play is available for school tours (grades 1-6) Feb. 7-May 25. Click here to learn more, and here to explore Childsplay photos on Facebook.

Coming up: Fun with arts & culture fundraisers

A homecoming tale

Costume rendering (Lyf) for Childsplay's production of "With Two Wings"

Playwright Anne Negri is experiencing a homecoming of sorts as Childsplay in Tempe prepares its production of “With Two Wings,” a work Negri wrote while enrolled in ASU’s M.F.A. in theatre for youth program. Negri now lives, and teaches public school drama classes, in Illinois –but she’s been in the Valley this week for Childsplay rehearsals of her work.

“I’ve been in the room since the the day the actors read it,” says Negri. She’s also attended production meetings, spent time in the prop shop and more. Negri says she’s thrilled to have “all these smart people” talk about her work and debate the finer points about how best to give it wings.

The impetus for writing “With Two Wings” was a personal experience — coupled with a teacher’s expectation that she not only study playwriting but also give it a try. Negri shares that her older sister, who suffered malnutrition and other challenges before being adopted from India, has learning disabilities.

Though Negri’s sister, now in her late 30s, is now divorced — she was married for a time to a man with learning disabilities, and they had a son. Negri notes that Will, now 10 years old, “somehow missed those genetic hits.” And it got her wondering.

Costume rendering (Mom) for Childsplay's production of "With Two Wings"

What would it be like for a child to surpass his own parents in many ways? By age 8 or 9, says Negri, her nephew Will was already reading better than his mom. Early in the process of thinking about Will’s story, Negri had a dream about people with wings — which led her to revisit the myth of Icarus.

The myth describes an escape by Icarus and his father Daelalus using wings made with wax. Seems Icarus ignored his father’s advice to avoid flying near the sun, then died once the wax in his wings melted from the sun’s heat. Negri imagined the story with a different ending — in which the father, rather than the son, fell into the sea.

Negri describes “With Two Wings” as a “fantasy world.” Its inhabitants include a boy named Lyf (Nathan Dobson), his dad (Jon Gentry) and his mom (Kate Haas). Also two kids — Taur (John Moum) and Meta (Kaleena Newman) — who live in town but stumble one day onto the family’s isolated home.

Costume rendering (Dad) for Childsplay's production of "With Two Wings"

Lyf’s encounter with the pair sparks his first realization that his world is different. How and why it’s different are at the heart of the play — which is being performed weekends Jan. 22-Feb. 5 at Tempe Center for the Arts. Families who attend a Jan. 22 “Storybook Preview Performance” pay just $12 per ticket and receive a free book.

The back of my lovely “With Two Wings” postcard notes that there’s a “Backstage Tour” after the 1pm performance on Feb. 4. Also a “Family Improv” event that morning at Childsplay’s “Campus for Imagination and Wonder.” Parents can learn more by visiting Childsplay online at www.childsplayaz.org.

— Lynn

Note: Costumes for the Childsplay production of “With Two Wings” are designed by D. Daniel Hollingshead. Childsplay recommends this play for ages six & up. “With Two Wings” is also part of Childsplay’s 2011-12 “School Tours” season. Click here for details.

Coming up: More about the “With Two Wings” journey from class project to Childsplay world premiere

“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

Thoughts of Japan

After watching television coverage of the devastating consequences of recent natural disasters in Japan, I spent some time reflecting on challenges facing the people of Japan — and those of us around the globe who must do our part to help its people.

I headed to the Japanese Friendship Garden in central Phoenix, which features an authentic Japanese stroll garden perfect for quiet reflection. There I learned that Himeji, Japan — home of a castle hailed as a world treasure — is one of Phoenix’s “sister cities.”

During tough — and truly tragic — times, those who feel the strongest need to help are often the people who have a personal connection with those affected. Phoenix has such a connection to Japan, and our country’s strong political alliance with Japan is well known and highly regarded.

As you talk with your family, friends and fellow community members about ways to support the Japanese people in the days, months and years ahead — consider spending some time at Ro Ho En, the Japanese Friendship Garden located at Margaret T. Hance Park.

Here’s a bit of what you’ll see there — followed by news of upcoming events at the garden, and ways you can help the people of Japan rebuild their homes and their lives…

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We first experienced the Japanese Friendship Garden during an elementary school field trip that included participating in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which we began by taking off our shoes and settling into a spirit of quiet observation and profound respect.

I recalled that ceremony, with its beautiful order and tradition, as I watched footage filmed during and after Japan’s largest earthquake. A woman who struggled to replace cans in a supermarket as they fell around her amidst all the trembling. The people who remained calm and reverant rather than resorting to looting or other means of furthering the chaos wrought by nature upon them.

The Japanese Friendship Garden is a wonderful place to introduce your children to Japanese culture. In addition to the tea house and tea garden, it features more than fifty varieties of plants, flowing streams, stone footbridges and lanterns, a 12-foot waterfall and a Koi pond with more than 300 colorful fish.

During my most recent stroll through the garden, just a few other people were there — making it an especially serene and tranquil experience. I hope to return for the “Zen Garden Music & Art Festival” on April 16, when the garden will come alive with all sorts of visual and performance art.

During their season, the Japanese Friendship Garden participates in ArtLink’s “First Fridays” from 4pm to 7pm/dusk — when admission is free. Other times, the admission fee is modest — and school tours/group tours are available.

You’ll learn plenty about the Japanese Friendship Garden, and affiliates such as the Urasenke Foundation in Kyoto, by simply visiting their website — which features its own spectacular slide show with really interesting captions.

Still, a visit to the garden is the best way to get a feel here in Phoenix for all the beauty and wonder that is Japan.

— Lynn

Note: Visit the following websites to discover some of the ways you can support recovery efforts in Japan: www.doctorswithoutborders.org,  www.internationalmedicalcorps.org, www.peace-winds.org, www.redcross.org, www.salvationarmyusa.org

Coming up: Movie and theater reviews

Update: Donations for the Phoenix sister city of Himeji, Japan can be made March 18-20 at the Himeji, Japan booth in Sister Cities Village at WorldFEST. Click here to learn more about a fund drive being held by the Phoenix Sister Cities Commission to benefit disaster relief efforts — and to learn more about WorldFEST, which features family-friendly activities related to several of our sister cities throughout the world.

Bridge to somewhere

Golden Gate Bridge by Margie Smeller

I’ve had enough with talk of so-called “bridges to nowhere.” If you want to build a bridge to somewhere, build it with music.

Tom Chapin, a three-time Grammy Award winner, will be doing just that as he performs a “Building Bridges Family Concert” in Arizona next month.

It’s refreshing news for the many Arizonans who prefer building bridges over building walls.

If the name Chapin sounds familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of brother Harry Chapin or Steve Chapin — just a couple of the artists grown from the same family tree.

Bridge to Terabithia by Margie Smeller

Tom’s “Building Bridges” concert features original songs “in a fun array of musical styles” — teaching life lessons about “inclusiveness, making healthy choices, tolerance, respect and the environment.”

Turns out the Higley Center for the Performing Arts, located in the East Valley, presents all sorts of family-friendly fare — like “The Music Man” being performed through Feb 26 in partnership with Copperstar Repertory Co. and Higley Community Education.

They also welcome plenty of touring productions you may not have the opportunity to see at other Valley venues. Just last November, I enjoyed “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical” presented by the Kennedy Center for Young Audiences on Tour” at the Higley venue.

Bridge to a New Life by Margie Smeller

The 2011 Educational Tour of the Utah Shakespeare Festival will present “Macbeth” at the Higley Center for the Performing Arts Mon, March 7, at 9:45am.

You might think of Higley as a sleepy little town on the outskirts of metropolitan Phoenix, but those who appreciate rare and unique art opportunities for building bridges between children and culture know better.

— Lynn

Rainbow Bridge by Margie Smeller

Note: The ASU School of Theatre and Film in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts presents “A Bridge to the Stars” March 3-11. The play (which is appropriate for all ages) follows a character named Joel (age 11) as he searches for “family, community and meaning” in a mythical Scandinavian village.

Coming up: New seasons for venues presenting touring Broadway productions

Artwork by Margie Smeller, a self-described “outsider artist” in Maryland, who works at home, at “Art Enables” and at “Scott Key Center.” Visit her website for information on commissioning work and works currently for sale.

Old dog, new tricks

My husband presented me with a little something in red and white the other night. Not a Valentine’s Day gift, as you might expect. But a plastic card bearing the letters “AARP.”

Apparently I’m now old enough to get the senior discount at my local Denny’s, plus other benefits I’ll read up on some other time when I run out of crossword puzzles or Earl Grey.

As the phrase “old dog, new tricks” popped into my head, I recalled my most recent adventures with Childsplay — a Tempe-based theater company founded in 1977.

I attended last Saturday’s early matinee performance of “Go, Dog. Go!” at Tempe Center for the Arts — and was delighted by the endless parade of new tricks.

Count me among the many folks who never cease to wonder how on earth Childsplay manages to outdo themselves at every turn. It’s mind-boggling, and not because I’m 50.

My daughter, Jennifer, turns 20 this year. “Go, Dog. Go!” by P.D. Eastman was one of her favorite books during childhood. She’s hesitant to see a live performance based on the book for fear it will ruin her memories of the story somehow.

But I have strong evidence to the contrary — my own memories of absolutely elated preschoolers and ebullient parents who also attended last Saturday’s 1pm show.

Think one-ring circus colliding with comedic theater, and you have Childsplay’s spin on “Go, Dog. Go!” — a Steven Dietz and Allison Gregory adaptation of the book that features music by Michael Koerner.

Childsplay’s “Go, Dog. Go!” is a “theater in the round” experience brimming with actor (dog)/audience interaction — plus plenty of hats and pratfalls.

Think roller skates and all sorts of wheeled modes of transport. Think vollying a giant inflated ball back and forth a la rock concert. Think giant props, and plenty of them.

“Go, Dog. Go!” is a full-blown “bells and whistles” production.

During intermission, families had lots of great options — including going outside to run off some steam and hitting the Childsplay gift boutique for books, CDs, stuffed animals or signed cast photos (there’s even an adorable silver sparkly photo album just for holding Childsplay memories).

Too few headed to the exhibit of glass works currently featured in the TCA Gallery. It’s full of whimsical kid-friendly fare, including several multi-media works with neon lighting.

Several enjoyed educational materials with fun dog-related themes found throughout the lobby — including matching games featuring dog breeds and characteristics, and words from the show presented in diverse languages.

Childsplay offers all sorts of educational programs — from field trips and school tours to Childsplay Academy classes for children and teens. Online registration for popular summer programs starts today, Feb 12, at 10am.

Learning and laughing — it never gets old.

— Lynn

Note: The 9th annual “dog friendly” “Liver Life Walk” takes place Sat, March 19. Click (or paw) here for details.

Coming up: Fun with cats

Photos courtesy of Childsplay