By Margie Salvante, Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia
This past winter, the Arden Theatre’s hugely successful production of Charlotte’s Web completed a run of 98 performances. It set records for attendance and revenue—not just for the Arden’s children’s theatre but for all its theatre. Thirty-four thousand people came to see the family play, generating nearly $500,000 in revenues. The Inquirer reported that one actor on the stage said that day after day he looked into the rapt faces of young audiences and realized they were so transfixed by the play they forgot to laugh at the funny parts.
While it is too big a leap to say that great children’s theatre inevitably begets great adult theatre in a community, the circumstantial evidence is that Philadelphia has both and there is no reason not to believe one informs the other. Harry Dietzler, the highly-regarded artistic director of the Upper Darby Summer Stage, noted that the Arden had achieved the same production standards for Charlotte’s Web as its adult main stage fare.
To attract such audiences, Dietzler said, “it needs to be high quality theatre… not a sideline thrown together for Saturdays and that’s what the Arden achieved.”
And based on a sampling of interviews with children who agreed to sit on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch as it toured the region in recent months, there is a remarkable level of understanding and sophistication about what makes theatre distinctive and magical. In an age of small screen, on-demand, internet-delivered entertainment these children understood that upon a stage in a theatre you had to travel to, something altogether different and infinitely more exotic transpired.
Josh Huestis sat on the couch during last summer’s MS Mud Run in Delaware County and grasped one of the most potent potions of the theatre experience, as gleaned from his short time taking acting classes at People’s Theatre and Light: “I love how actors find a way to come to the audience and make them feel special in their own little way.”
Jack Pawloski, at the same event, found his own words to capture that vital connection that occurs in theatre: “It’s so much better than TV because you can really feel what the actors are saying to you.”
Jack had just seen his first play, West Side Story, on Broadway and was transported.
Emery McLaughlin talked about theatre on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch at WXPN’s World Cafe. She had seen The Borrowers 10 times on stage, but keeps coming back because “it’s different every single time, even if it is the same actors, there is always something.”
She told the interviewer that she once got to go see auditions at the Arden. “It was really cool because you saw all these different people doing basically the same part, except it was all really, really different as each person interpreted it differently.”
As for the connection between children’s theatre and the quality and energy of adult theatre in a community, Harry Dietzler is in no doubt. Half the staff of his well-resourced summer theatre program participated in children’s theatre. He said that invariably when he asks his summer stagers how many had seen children’s theatre as a member of audience before signing up for his program, half the hands shoot up.
Dietzler, who won a lifetime achievement award at last year’s Barrymore Awards, was also impressed by the parade of participants who also stood at the podium, many to pick up their own awards, and told of how the road to that night started long ago in theatre for the young.
And for Dietzler, the value of that revealed itself in his own house. In school, his son Brian was quiet, not particularly popular, a non-participant in school activities. Then with Tina Fey directing him, his son played the role of a bald headed outcast in the musical Hans Christian Andersen. After the play as actors and audience mingled, a small boy ran up and asked him for his autograph.
From that moment, the transformation was almost immediate, Dietzler said. His son ran for student council, became school leader, became at ease making speeches and the following summer took on a much bigger role in the play Rags.
“I see it all the time,” Dietzler said, “kids just blossom and develop a personality.”
Or as pre-teen Nina Berendetti said at the Media Arts and Crafts Show of her experience in acting in theatre: It is really pure, it makes people happy and you can express yourself.”