Children: Enter Stage Right

Heights Players perform a version of Goldilocks in their Theater for Children program

Heights Players perform a version of Goldilocks in their Theater for Children program

On top of a full season of grown-up productions, theater group Heights Players casts its demographic net to children, presenting separate productions specially catered for them.

Based in Brooklyn Heights, the Heights Players’ Theater for Children program made a comeback in 2006 after an 11-year hiatus due to financial reasons. Now four productions — specially made for children aged nine and below — are performed each season.

In contrast, Brick Theater in Williamsburg does not offer a dedicated, regular season for young viewers, nor does the Gallery Players in nearby Park Slope.

St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater group in DUMBO, fuses theater and rock & roll music. Their first production is “Black Watch,” a play about a Scottish military regiment. Not a popular theme for parents to bring their children along.

Community theaters producing shows for the young are not a rarity in Brooklyn, says Carol Sterling from the Brooklyn Arts Council.

However the nonprofit Height’s Players’ four full productions for children and eight for adults in a regular season is not common practice among these theater groups.

For example, Tuckaberry Productions in Prospect Heights, which will have two shows for children in the 2008-2009 season, won’t have performances for adults.

The for-profit Brooklyn Children’s Theatre in Prospect Park. They offer classes for children that culminate in a musical theater performance at the end of fall and spring, but otherwise have no other productions.

Theater groups are conventionally set up to produce art for adults who can appreciate and intellectualize, so why does Heights Players provide resources to children shows?

“In today’s society when children are inundated with movies, video games and the Internet, live theater connects them to age-old traditions, to understand the magic of storytelling at its best.  It helps expand their imagination,” says Jill Lewis-Kelly, an actress for the Heights Players in last season’s “Cinderella” production.

At the helm of the Theater for Children program is Bill Wood, writer, producer and director of the plays specially made for children’s tastes.

His source material is fairy tales and nursery rhymes. “I give them a script, give them a moral and make it more friendly,” said Wood while citing how he would avert the wolf’s death in a remake of Red Riding Hood. He would then get friends to compose the music.

Theater for Children was so well received that its success funded its survival. Abundant ticket revenue ensured that future productions “never needed to ask for money from the Heights Players treasury,” said Wood. Tickets cost $5 for children theater and $15 for grown-up performances.

How then did the first production — “Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Bubula Too” — come onstage? The “cast was small, musicians didn’t get paid,” and they “made their own costumes,” said Wood. He also pulled out money from his own pocket.

Over time, Theater for Children became the pull-factor for first-time visitors to Heights Players. The “Goldilocks” production garnered about 50 viewers in its run. Now shows easily reach the theater’s capacity of 150.

“Our audiences have just exploded,” said Ed Healy, president of the Heights Players. The neighborhood has “a whole bunch of new parents and children who are looking for something to do,” said Healy.

This season the first two productions for children will be modeled after “Three Little Pigs” and “Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” and adapted for Halloween and Christmas themes.

Positive reactions have brought opportunities. Theater for Children was asked to perform at Brooklyn’s Conservancy Spring Fling in 2007. On Oct. 8 it will appear at Barnes & Noble on Court Street for a short performance.


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