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Kids' Theater, but Not Child's Play

Performers used to adult audiences are recruited for an unusual series.

October 01, 1998|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Avant-garde dance theater duo Blue Palm, award-winning solo artist Jude Narita, the progressive East West Players, the innovative Collage Dance Theater--these are children's performers?

They are at the 24th Street Theatre, for which the Glorious Repertory Company has recruited professional artists from adult theater as well as more traditional children's theater. They will take part in an unusual round of performances for children called the "Saturday Explorer Series," funded through a $30,000 outreach grant from neighboring USC.

The free 16-show, 16-week series--which kicks off Saturday with "Two Friends: Dos Amigos," a bilingual play by Paul Morse--is nothing if not ambitious. The intention is to offer underserved area children, as well as the general public, a quality theatrical experience and, by so doing, to challenge adult preconceptions that marginalize children's theater as fairy tales and clown shows.

"You don't have to put on a funny hat and grimace to perform for kids," said Glorious Repertory Company co-director Jay McAdams. "We're trying to present a series that says children's theater can be something else. You can show them intelligent work that challenges them."

Robert Scales, dean of USC's School of Theater and sponsor of the university's outreach grant for the series, agrees. "It's important to have an alternative for families, [theater] that they can share and discuss." Theater for children should "keep imagination alive, the 'what if' that young people have when they play," he said.

Although the series will serve younger audiences with some traditional fare, such as longtime favorites J.P. Nightingale and the Bob Baker Marionettes, the emphasis is on less traditional work for ages 7 and older.

"thirtysomething" star Timothy Busfield's Sacramento youth theater troupe "will be doing a sendup of 'Moby Dick,' " McAdams said. " 'Dos Amigos' is just two guys and a basketball, performed by top-notch actors [Kevin Hall and Paul Morse Productions' artistic director Jaime Ferrar]. Rob Bowers, who is doing 'More Than Meets the Ear,' is a Victor Borge for kids, very witty and high-energy."

Narita, acclaimed for her intimate portraits of Asian and Asian American women, will perform a dramatic work, and Berger & Disken, a husband-and-wife mime duo, performing to Pachelbel's "Canon," will present their resonant piece about the cycle of life.

Collage Dance Theatre is another unexpected offering. Artistic director Heidi Duckler will present "Mr. Westinghouse," a dance duet with a refrigerator "about the hunger for love" and two new short works that she is writing especially for the series.

"Doing a program tailored to families is a new thing for us, but I'm so happy to be doing it," she said. "I think art should be accessible to people of all ages."

The "Explorer" series has yet another purpose, however: It is showcasing the performances as "a first step" toward L.A.'s first International Youth Theatre Festival, to be presented by the nonprofit Southern California Festival for Children at USC and Exposition Park in May 1999.

Scales, and McAdams and his wife, Glorious Repertory's founder Debbie Devine, are helping plan the local talent component of the festival. Since children's theater is a strongly supported tradition in many other countries, the hope is to involve L.A.'s theater community in a high-caliber effort.

"With this much talent and hundreds of theaters in town, we should have excellent quality children's theater, ongoing, all year round. That's kind of our Bible-thumping mission," said McAdams, whose company focuses on presenting adult theater that is appropriate for ages 10 and older.

"This is a city with so many talented actors who are waiting tables. There's no reason that people should have this arrogance about [doing] children's theater, but it's an uphill battle we're facing. We realize that youth theater will never be the Mark Taper Forum's priority, for instance, but we figure it makes sense to keep banging the drum and say to artists and audiences alike, 'Let's do better.' "

BE THERE

"Saturday Explorer Series," 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles, Saturdays, 1 p.m., through Dec. 19; resumes Feb. 13. Ends March 20. Free, but seating is limited and reservations are required. (213) 745-6516.

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