2: Seattle Children's Theater, Seattle Not far from the Space Needle, in the culture-rich Seattle Center, Linda Hartzell, this theater's enterprising artistic director, has pushed the envelope with such works as Little Rock, a musical about desegregation in the 1950s. Among this season's offerings is a new adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage, which has had to be postponed twiceonce after Sept. 11, and again after the start of the Iraq War. Works like this fall's The Magic City, based on E. Nesbit's children's book, are more traditional and unashamedly commercial. But Hartzell, a laid-back former drama teacher (at Bill Gates' old high school), is on a mission. "We're getting kids at age 5," she says. "They will be the audience of the future."
3: Coterie Theater, Kansas City, Mo. In a downtown shopping complex called Crown Center, hard by Pretzel Time and Topsy's sweet shop, Jeff Church runs one of the nation's most respected children's theaters. The Coterie developed and staged the world premiere of Laurie Brooks' groundbreaking Wrestling Season in 2000 (Brooks will be a playwright in residence this season), and devoted one entire season to staging versions of formerly banned books, such as Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men. This fall's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also novel, using different actors to play Jekyll and Hyde. "We're trying to defy traditional notions of children's theater," says Church, who started his first children's theater in tiny La Junta, Colo., nearly 30 years ago, at age 15. "When you've got six actors in rainbow-colored suspenders doing Flopsy Goes to the Circus, you know you've hit rock bottom."
4: Nashville Children's Theater, Nashville Founded in 1931 by a group of Junior League women, this is the oldest children's theater in the U.S. True to its community roots, the NCT continues to stress its educational role, each year playing to some 270 schools from Nashville and surrounding communities in Tennessee and Kentucky. And the school buses must feel right at home pulling up to the unprepossessing, low-slung, institutional-yellow stone building in which NCT is housed. Producing director Scot Copeland, who got the theater bug when he first saw The Wind in the Willows while growing up in Alabama, wants to keep kids interested in classic books. Last season he staged The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a revised-for-kids version of the Broadway musical, with songs by Nashville composer Don Schlitz.
5: Dallas Children's Theater, Dallas Robyn Flatt and a group of fellow actors at the Dallas Theater Center started putting on plays for kids in the park. Then in 1984 they launched a full-fledged children's theater with $500, a few costumes and tumbling mats. Today the theater presents an 11-show season and has moved into a spacious new facility converted from a bowling alley. DCT also tours the country with shows like Coyote Tales, a new work based on Mexican folk tales by resident playwright Linda Daugherty. Flatt attracts crowds by emphasizing familiar titles; the challenge is to find adaptations that convey the richness and complexity of the originals. "For a long time," says Flatt, "there was a feeling you had to goop it up for kids. It's given children's theater a bad name." This season's production of To Kill a Mockingbird kept the goop to a minimum.