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'Family Audience Theater' Fills Void in North County


Any conversation about theater in San Diego invariably includes references to The Big Three: the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse and the San Diego Repertory.

Then there are the other three Equity houses in town: Starlight Musical, the Gaslamp and the Bowery theaters, not to mention many other professional companies.

Yet, with this surfeit of efforts, there has been a huge void in a particular area of the local stage scene. As far as Bonnie Tarwater is concerned, the void is now being filled.

Tarwater is the president and artistic director of the Del Mar Theatre Ensemble, which since last September has been producing "family audience theater." That's Tarwater's preferred term for "children's theater," a phrase that she feels encumbers her.

"When people hear 'children's theater,' they think three things: that it's performed by child actors; that it's aimed at toddlers; and that it's unprofessional. That's all untrue," Tarwater said, in a recent interview at Del Mar Plaza, where the company is housed.

"This is very sophisticated theater that people of all ages can enjoy together. It's the kind of live community experience that's lacking in our society."

Still, it is aimed primarily at young audiences, and it's the kind of theater that hasn't been produced regularly in San Diego, despite the city's national reputation for quality stage work. Part of the reason is that professional children's theater is just as expensive to produce as professional theater aimed at any audience. And, even though children are frequently referred to as the "arts audiences of the future," children's theater is somehow considered a greater risk.

If anyone can make a go of children's theater here, it's probably energetic, enthusiastic Tarwater, who has the kind of zeal required for someone running a fledgling nonprofit arts organization. She certainly has the credentials for this effort.

Tarwater is a professionally trained actress who attended UC San Diego and received her master's degree from the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. She worked in a number of regional theaters, including ACT, the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Pacific Conservatory for Performing Arts.

She gave up her acting career when she moved to San Diego County with her physician husband seven years ago. Since then she has gained other valuable training for her current endeavor--she's the mother of two young sons.

"After I had my kids and started looking for activities, it became painfully obvious that there wasn't much here for children," Tarwater said. "This enables me to work in theater again, and it involves my family."

It is somewhat ironic that Tarwater's endeavor has ended up in Del Mar Plaza. She was part of the vociferous opposition to the plaza's development, fearing Del Mar would lose its small-town character. But Del Mar voters approved the plaza, so Tarwater decided to take advantage of the situation.

"I went to the developers and told them up front that I was against them and asked them to put their money where their mouth is," Tarwater said.

The developers, David Winkler and Ivan Gayler, responded by providing a space for the theater--free--until the space is rented. And Tarwater says they'll help find another space should that occur. Tarwater says it's a fair deal, saying a new theater company couldn't make it any other way. And the developers have been impressed enough with the company's initial efforts that they've contracted for four productions--up to $30,000 in cash and services--in the coming year.

The troupe's most recent show, "Telling Wilde Tales," was an adaptation of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde--the kind of challenging, but entertaining fare Tarwater wants to produce.

"We were concerned about doing a piece that includes themes such as love, death and jealousy," she says. "We weren't sure what the reaction would be, but it's been great. Parents wish their children weren't old enough to deal with life issues, but it's often the parents who don't want to face them."

The company's initial production was "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown." They followed with "Peter and the Wolf" and a holiday program that included both Christmas and Hanukkah stories.

Their next production will be Moliere's "Scapan--A Family Farce," opening May 20.

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