Tag Archives: theater classes

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


From “Hunger Games” to “Origami Yoda”

Childsplay Spring Academy 2012 includes a theater class that explores themes from Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy

The “Hunger Games” trilogy, a series of young adult novels in the science fiction genre, has inspired a new “Hunger Games” class being offered this spring by Childsplay in Tempe. The theater class for kids ages 8-13 is part of their spring Saturday class line-up — and registration is well underway.

Fans of “Footloose” between the ages of 8-14 can enroll in Childsplay’s spring break workshop titled “Musical Theatre Marathon: Footloose” — which runs March 12-16 from 9am to 4pm. Participants will use “excerpts of scenes and songs” to create a workshop version of the musical, then share it with family and friends on the last day of class.

Childsplay offers two sets of Saturday classes this spring. The first session runs Jan. 28-March 10 (no class on Feb. 18) and the second session runs March 24-May 5 (no class on April 7). Fans of “Hunger Games,” take  note — it’s part of the second session. Like all Childsplay classes, enrollment is limited.

Session I offerings include “Broadway Bound” for 4 to 6 year olds and “Story Journeys: Cat Tales” (think “Pete the Cat,” “The Cat in the Hat” and “Skippyjon Jones“) for 5 to 7 years olds.

Another Childsplay class explores the world created by author Tom Angleberger

Session I offerings for 6 to 10 year olds include “Triple Threat Jr.” and “Story Journeys: Junie B. Jones.” Options for 8 to 13 year olds include “Triple Threat” and “Story Journeys: Strange Case of Origami Yoda.” I’m told that last one explores the world of author Tom Angleberger’s Ralph McQuarrie Middle School as kids delve into their own case for Origami Yoda and create origami art along the way.

Session II offerings include “Story Journeys: Llama Llama” for 4 to 6 year olds, and “Broadway Bound” for 5 to 7 year olds. Session II classes for 6 to 10 year olds include “Triple Threat Jr.” and “Mythical Adventures.” Session II options for 8 to 13 year olds include “Triple Threat” and “Hunger Games.”

For parents not yet initiated into theater-speak, the phrase “triple threat” refers to the trio of singing, dancing and acting — so “Triple Threat” classes cover all three. I felt it best to mention that for parents who were hoping it meant homework, chores and manners.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about Childsplay’s Spring Academy, which also includes a progressive program of study called “Conservatory” — and here for information on upcoming shows.

Coming up: Walk on the art side, Just wing it!

Rising Youth Theatre

Rising Youth Theatre founders Xanthia Walker and Sarah Sullivan

After completing MFA degrees in theatre for youth at Arizona State University in Tempe, Xanthia Walker and Sarah Sullivan knew they wanted to start a theater company, so they looked around and considered the community need.

“We noticed that no one was doing full-time, community-engaged theater with youth,” recalls Walker. They’d found the need — “creating original plays with youth based on their true stories.” And so Rising Youth Theatre was born.

At this point, says Walker, it’s a “pilot project.” The task at hand is “developing our model for creating work.” They expect to do residency work all over the Phoenix metro area for a good six months or so, creating a youth theater production and building the reputation they’ll need to move forward.

Once they’ve laid this foundation, says Walker, they’ll seek additional funding and partnerships. Walker notes that they’re already working with several Valley agencies serving youth — including the Boys and Girls Clubs, Flight 33 in Guadalupe and Barrio Nuevo Phoenix.

They’ve already spent more than a month working with groups of youth at seven different sites in Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler and Guadalupe. “We’re probably working now with about 1oo to 150 middle school or high school age youth,” says Walker.

“A team of resident artists work with us to facilitate story gathering with students,” explains Walker. Their current project focuses on “what it means to be an Arizonan in 2012 from the perspective of a young person.”

Walker notes that the artists use various methods to help youth capture and share their thoughts about Arizona — including improvisation, story sharing, theater games and writing exercises. They then look for universal notes, comments and stories that elucidate common threads and themes.

Playwright José Zárate, who attends each of these workshops with youth, takes notes that get translated into outline form — material that he’ll eventually craft into a play performed by Rising Youth Theatre. Walker expects to hold auditions around the end of February, then move forward with rehearsals and developing the program.

Auditions, shares Walker, will be open to both youth involved in the residency phase of the play’s development and youth from the larger community. She expects the process of developing the play together as a cast to take about six weeks.

“The play will have a full production team and professional actors performing alongside participating youth,” says Walker. Actors Ricky Araiza, recently seen in Childsplay’s “The Sun Serpent,” and Elizabeth Pollen, who performed last season in Childsplay’s “The Tomato Plant Girl,” have already signed on to the project. Both are energetic, vibrant performers.

Rising Youth Theatre recently became the resident theater company of the Phoenix Center for the Arts, which is sponsoring their first production. It’ll be performed at the center the last weekend of April in 2012.

Rising Youth Theatre is offering six theater classes for youth which start in January of 2012 and cost just $60 each. There are two for first through third graders (“A Whole New World: Imagination and Adventures” and “Choose Your Own Adventure”) and four for fourth through sixth graders (“The Actor’s Tools: Body & Voice,” “Who Do You Think You Are?,” “Clowning Around,” and “What’s The Story?”).

To learn more about Rising Youth Theatre, the “Arizonan Project” or theater clases for youth, click here.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read a “Stage Mom” review of an earlier work directed by Xanthia Walker which shares the stories of youth and families living with autism. Click here for information on other classes offered at Phoenix Center for the Arts.

Coming up: Making my holiday reading list

Photo courtesy of Xanthia Walker

Play it forward

Phoenix Theater will soon be “playing it forward” with a pair of original works titled “At the End of the Day” and “Like Everyone Else” — both part of a “Weekend of Change” taking place June 3-5 at Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale.

Both works bring “youth theatre for social change” to the stage. Think arts and activism with a local twist. The “Weekend of Change” project has given youth ages 13 to 24 the chance to “participate in theatrical performance designed to create dialogue around social issues affecting an entire community.”

Both are part of the Phoenix Theatre education department, headed by A. Beck, who also serves as theatre arts coordinator for Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix.

The “Theater for Social Change” class at Arizona School for the Arts partnered with the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center to develop a work titled “Like Everyone Else.” 

The play is helping students, families and SARRC staff raise community awareness about autism spectrum disorders and the resources provided by SARRC for families affected by them. Click here to enjoy a trailer.

Ticket sales from “Like Everyone Else” — which is being performed Sunday, June 5 at 2pm — will raise funds for SAARC’s “Autism Artisans” program, a “series of art workshops that expose emerging and established artists with autism spectrum disorders ages 13 and older to a variety of art mediums.”

The “Autism Artisans” program at SARRC “utilizes art to promote autism awareness, therapeutic intervention and opportunities for the talents and contributions of individuals with autism spectrum disorders to be recognized.”

My daughter, Lizabeth, is privileged to be a part of the ASA “Theatre for Social Change” class, taught by Xanthia Walker — and also worked with Beck and fellow “QSpeak” youth to develop the other work being presented during Phoenix Theatre’s “Weekend of Change.”

“At the End of the Day: True Stories of LGBTQ and Homeless Youth” is being presented by Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development and QSpeak, both of Phoenix.

QSpeak’s mission is to “provide a safe space for queer youth and their straight allies to engage in community dialogue and affect positive change through storytelling and performance in order to bring awareness to their own lives and experiences.”

Tumbleweed serves youth ages 11-22 in Maricopa County who are “abused, abandoned, troubled, and neglected.” Many are runaways or homeless youth.

Tumbleweed helps these youth to understand and achieve their individual potential, increase their personal and social skills, and “become self-directed, socially responsible, and productive citizens.”

“At the End of the Day” will be performed Fri, June 3 at 7pm — also at Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale. Ticket sales benefit Tumbleweed’s GreenHouse Project, the Valley’s only LGBTQ transitional living program.

Tickets to “At the End of the Day” and “Like Everyone Else” are available online from Brown Paper Tickets or at the door the day of the show. Those wishing to make a donation or secure a sponsorship to support the “Weekend of Change” can contact Beck at Phoenix Theatre.

— Lynn

Coming up: 12 Arizona artists play 20 questions

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?


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

Finding fall arts classes

Pair with shorts and flips flops?

All the classic signs of fall have come to Arizona. Temperatures sometimes dropping below 100 degrees. Children heading back to school. Mannequins donning sweaters we’ll wear all of one or two days if we’re lucky.

Technically, fall 2010 begins in late September. But that doesn’t stop us from applying the term a bit early when talking about classes that begin this time of year.

You can find fall arts classes for almost all ages in many parts of the Valley–with plenty of options to choose from between the many forms of visual and performing arts.

Golden-flower agave and hummingbird

If your child or teen might enjoy attending arts workshops or classes, check some of these options near your home or your child’s school:

City parks and recreation departments
City arts and culture programs
Youth club/afterschool programs
Private arts studios
Performing arts venues
Bookstores and craft stores
Non-profit arts organizations

There should be plenty to choose from–including one-time workshops and longer class sessions.

Here’s a sampling of arts organizations offering fall arts classes for children and/or teens:


Several options, including fall break workshop (musical theatre), Saturday classes (story journeys, musical theatre, Broadway) and conservatory (progressive program for developing more advanced acting skills). www.childsplayaz.org

Mesa Arts Center

Several dance, drama, music and visual arts options, such as pre-ballet, creative movement, acting for TV/film, puppets/masks, piano, voice, drawing and painting. www.mesaartscenter.com

Scottsdale Artists’ School     

Several options, including single Saturday classes (acrylic, mixed media, sculpture, watercolor, charcoal, pen and ink) and winter break class (gift making with several media). www.scottsdaleartschool.org

Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy

Several dance, music and acting options, such as “dancing princess” classes coupling dancing with dress-up, group voice technique, tumbling, boys only hip hop and jazz, and teen scenes and improv. www.studio3arts.com

Valley Youth Theatre   

Several options, including weekday classes (musical theatre, acting technique, triple threat) and weekend classes (play pretend, musical theatre). www.vyt.com

Saguaro cactus fruit-Tonto National Forest

Registration is underway at many sites and classes often fill quickly,  so now is the time to do your  homework and make those fabulous fall decisions. 

Saguaros don’t have leaves to change colors with the seasons.

But don’t let that distract you from the fact that time, even in Arizona, marches on.


Schott's agave-Coronado National Forest

Note: If your organization offers fall visual or performing arts classes, feel free to add a brief comment below letting readers know a bit about your offerings and how to get more information on your programs

Coming up: Valley dance traditions–including Scorpius Dance Theatre’s “A Vampire Tale,” Ballet Arizona’s “Ballet Under the Stars,” ASU’s “Dance Annual” and more

Photos: Arizona plant photos from EduPic Graphical Resource at www.edupic.net. EduPic features “free photographs and graphics for education”–including a lovely selection of plants native to the Southwest.

Shakespeare and SB 1070?

I did everything a ‘good mother’ should do before leaving on vacation–made sure that all my kids had needed appointments scheduled, decluttered what would serve as a bachelor pad for my husband and son while I was away, did mountains of laundry–even wrote all the blogs you read last week while I was in Cedar City, Utah.

I vacation about once every ten years or so, though this was my second trip of the decade. A few years ago, I enjoyed a week in San Francisco with my oldest daughter, Jennifer, who feels more at home there than anywhere else she has traveled. The Embarcadero, by the way, is a glorious place to witness Fourth of July fireworks.

Most recently, I was in Cedar City, Utah with my youngest daughter, Lizabeth, who has been attending acting classes with the Utah Shakespearean Festival education program (which I’ll share more about in a future post). At first, I planned to leave my laptop at home–a clear signal to my daughter that she’s more important than work.

I ended up taking it along for recreational purposes–finding tourist attractions, learning more about all things Shakespeare while we enjoyed the Utah Shakespearean Festival. I felt a bit less guilty when Lizabeth shot text messages back and forth to friends as we drove around Cedar City in search of ‘slow food’ and serenity.

My first full day in town, I attended the “Works in Progress” show presented on the campus of Southern Utah University by acting and directing students at various stages in their Shakespeare journeys. 

As in all good love affairs, those who adore Shakespeare seem to find something new and intriguing at every turn. I’m beginning to appreciate, for the first time, the full measure of his hilarity and even the sexiness of some of his work.

Shakespeare appears to be my favorite sort of fellow–intelligent but rather odd. Astute. Sarcastic. Curious. Playful.  He’s an easy guy to hang around with for several days, and clearly habit forming.

Of course, we also did our part for Valley theater while we were there as Lizabeth ran around town sporting her black “Childsplay” t-shirt complete with their “Theatre for Everyone” motto and website. I hope some of the families who enjoyed the festival together will find their way to Arizona to witness one of our own theatrical wonders.

We were in Cedar City together as the national news was taking note of Arizona’s SB 1070 legislation, so we had only to turn on the television (which we did infrequently) to catch a glimpse of home. Coincidentally, I got to chatting with one of Lizabeth’s Shakespeare friends about immigration-related issues.

She shared with me her family’s own story of immigrating to the U.S. many generations ago from Italy–reflecting on the sadness felt by many immigrants who love their homeland but feel no choice but to leave it in order to provide richer opportunities for the children they love. 

She also spoke of the young Spanish-speaking students she tutors in phonics (actors often work in more than one profession to pay the bills and find other outlets for their creativity). She described their eagerness to learn English, and the pride they feel at being able to translate between Spanish- and English-speakers–reflecting that they serve as a beautiful bridge of sorts from one country, from one generation, to the next.

I found it hard not to pull out my laptop at times when Lizabeth was napping during the day. We were on festival time–enjoying shows at night and sleeping in each day.  Tuesday morning, after seeing a CNN broadcast on the big screen at a local restaurant, I decided to search for “art and immigration.”

The first thing I found was “Alto Arizona“–a site dedicated to visual art expressing opposition to Arizona’s SB 1070. Whatever your take on this issue, exploration of the art it inspires is fascinating. Perhaps our own local museums can enlighten us all a bit more about the long history of art in immigration-related discourse.

Like the works of Shakespeare, immigration-related issues are rich in depth and breadth. Both are worthy of further exploration…


Note: Lizabeth and I spent a week together in Cedar City, Utah. Watch for future posts about our adventures, the plays we enjoyed together (including “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Macbeth”) and all things family-friendly in and around the Utah Shakespearean Festival (which runs through Oct 23 this year).

Coming up: Happenings at the Herberger Theater Center, Movie news and reviews, Thespian festival strikes again, Shakespeare and the superintendent, AriZoni award nominees (please send photos of 2009-2010 nominated shows to rakstagemom@gmail.com ASAP for possible inclusion in this post)