The Kids Are Alright

Children's theater in these parts deserves more attention

What's South Florida's most overlooked cultural resource? I'd vote for the variety and depth of children's theater on the local scene. With little public notice and less media fanfare, a number of busy stage companies are finding a huge audience base hungry for live entertainment suitable for the younger set.

Children's theater really is a potent cultural force. Besides introducing kids to the pleasures of theater, it can spark interest in music, dance, poetry, and literature, so much so that more than a few kids have been inspired to try their own hand at performing, designing, or directing. It's also a handy vehicle for message-oriented programs that promote everything from literacy to tolerance to antigraffiti campaigns. Last but certainly not least, children's theater offers a refreshing entertainment alternative to mind-numbing video games and aimless mall cruising -- plus, a trip to the theater is a relatively inexpensive outing that entire families can enjoy together. And believe it or not, families are actually still looking for that very thing.

Children¹s theater is really a catchall term, encompassing a great range of theater concepts. Some companies, like the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, mount professional productions of plays for children using experienced pros as performers. Others, like the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theater, feature children as cast and crew members under the guidance of adults. Some adult companies tour their regular shows to schools; other companies are primarily training grounds (and playgrounds) for youngsters, with personal growth as the major focus and the thrill of performance as a dividend.

All of these activities have several assets in common. First, they introduce youngsters to the creative power of live theater. Second, they engage kids' creative imaginations, either as onlookers or participants. Third, they introduce children to aspects of traditional culture without the corrosive influence of corporate product marketing. Fourth, they create a sense of community among all those who join in the fun.

While there are many children's theater companies in South Florida, most rarely come under media scrutiny. This is partly because they often lack the financial and artistic resources of the adult-oriented theaters. But another reason is the tendency for children's theaters to produce very short production runs. These limited presentations do not receive the reviews and feature articles that longer-running shows garner. As a result, many if not most South Florida residents never learn of the area's theater programming for children.

In the hopes of checking this trend, I offer this brief survey of some of the prominent children's theater troupes in South Florida. All three counties -- Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade -- have active children's theaters but families need to pick and choose from the programming choices. The range of production quality is wide, from sophisticated professionalism to relaxed amateur fun.

Perhaps the most prolific (and peripatetic) children's theater in South Florida is the Fantasy Theatre Factory of Miami. The Factory lacks a home performance space but offers an amazing array of productions and single performances at venues all over Broward and Miami-Dade counties, as well as beyond-the-company ventures across Florida when the opportunities arise. The company's current schedule includes performances of such shows as Curious George, Cinderella, African Folktales,and Little Monster Tales at such host organizations as the Broward County Main Library and Fairchild Tropical Gardens and at many schools and community centers. The Factory also offers educational workshops and shows with pro-reading, pro-environment, and antigraffiti themes. The nonprofit professional company works chiefly with professional adult performers and educators.

The slickest, most skilled children's shows are probably those of the Hollywood Playhouse and the Actors' Playhouse at Miracle Theatre, both of which have received awards from South Florida Parenting Magazine as the best children's theater productions in the area. Actors' Playhouse recently completed its bang-up musical version of The Jungle Book. Playing in March and April is The Emperor's Nightingale. Next up at Hollywood Playhouse in April: Rapunzel.

At the opposite end of the scale from these professional, adult actor troupes are the companies that produce plays performed by children as well as for them. The foremost practitioner in South Florida of this traditional form is the oldest, the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre, now celebrating its 50th season. The company has an ambitious season of more than 16 productions, one of only a few theaters nationally that uses youngsters, from grade schoolers on through young adults, as actors, technicians, and production assistants. The productions are huge: FLCT's recent Alice in Wonderland, which I took in last week, had two dozen performers in the cast. The sprawling show was hampered by a rather confusing stage adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic book but was redeemed in good measure by the energy and inventiveness of the young performers. The FLCT season culminates May 10-12 when Peter Pan will be presented at the 1175-seat Parker Playhouse. Peter Pan will feature more than 60 youngsters under age 18 and elaborate production support -- including "flying" technology.

Another "by children, for children" company is Creative Camp Players in Coral Gables. Like the FLCT, Creative Camp offers opportunities for children and teens to perform and produce their own shows for other young people. The players stage ambitious projects: coming up is an all-children production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical The Sound of Music, followed by the swashbuckling romance Cyrano de Bergerac.

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