Jack and the Beanstalk this play is not. Children's theateror theater for young audiences, to use the politically correct termis growing up. Once a place where community actors donned bright plaid costumes to act out fairy tales for little tykes, it has become a haven for some of the most committed and creative theater people in the country. These venues still draw the biggest crowds with the familiar kiddie favorites, from Charlotte's Web to Go, Dog. Go! But increasingly they are commissioning new works, reaching out to older kids, who typically stop going to theater when their parents stop dragging them, and pushing the boundaries in both style and subject matter.
Children's theater got a major boost in the mid-'90s with the arrival of Disney on Broadwayparticularly Julie Taymor's groundbreaking show The Lion King. The show not only proved that so-called children's theater could draw huge family audiences (it has raked in more than $1 billion from its Broadway and worldwide touring companies) but also expanded the vocabulary of the stage, embracing everything from puppetry to African dance. Everywhere in the culture, meanwhile, children's entertainment is crossing over to adult audiences and gaining mainstream cachet, from Harry Potter books to Pixar animation. London's National Theatre this year scored one of its biggest successes with a lavish, dense and sensationally entertaining two-part adaptation of Philip Pullman's young-adult trilogy His Dark Materials. In a world in which Madonna writes children's books and hip grownup film critics put Shrek on their 10 Best lists, it should have come as no surprise that a musical for little kids called A Year with Frog and Toad wound up on Broadway last yearand even got a Tony nomination for Best Musical.
The folks who created that show, the Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis, Minn., won their own Tony in 2003for Best Regional Theater, the first children's troupe ever to get that annual award. It was both a watershed and an inspiration for the the creators of kids' theater. "The theater world often condescends to us," says Scot Copeland, producing director of the Nashville Children's Theater. "The Tony was a great shot in the arm." Funding, while never easy to come by, is flowing a bit more easilypartly because children's theater can be sold to community-minded donors not just as an arts project, but as a boost for literacy and education. A growing number of mainstream playwrights, like David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) and Kia Corthron (Force Continuum), are writing plays for children. New theaters are under construction in Minneapolis and Tempe, Ariz.; the Dallas Children's Theater has just moved into a spacious new complex; and Washington's Kennedy Center, which has taken a lead in developing and producing works for the younger set, is finishing construction of a new theater to open next fall, dedicated exclusively to children's plays.