Setting a New Stage for Kids

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GO, DOG. GO! Adaptations like this Dallas show are popular, but serious fare is catching on

Between their pushups and power bars, Matt and Luke, two high school wrestling buddies training for a big match, don't need any distractions. But they've got one: a rumor going around school that they are gay. The kids spreading it have plenty of their own issues to deal with, like the girl trying to live down her reputation as the school slut, and the clique-leading prom queen whose boyfriend is cheating on her. It sounds like the stuff of a TV after-school special, except for two things. They don't have after-school specials anymore. And this is part of a play, Laurie Brooks' Wrestling Season, so energetically stylized that it defuses any hint of preachiness or soap opera. The action takes place on a gym floor, where a referee periodically whistles scenes to a halt with calls like "illegal hold" or "unsportsmanlike conduct." When not in scenes, the class- mates turn into a chorus, chanting lines ("You think you know me, but you don't") that echo key themes of the drama. And when the play is over, a moderator guides the audience through a postshow discussion as the actors, in character, defend their actions and theatergoers assign them to chairs, ranking their behavior from most to least objectionable.

Jack and the Beanstalk this play is not. Children's theater—or theater for young audiences, to use the politically correct term—is 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 Broadway—particularly 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 year—and 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 2003—for 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 easily—partly 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.

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