As school districts across the country (including here in Northwest Indiana) pare funding for arts programs while, elsewhere, theater administrators wring their hands over the advancing age demographic of their core audiences, Theatre at the Center in Munster thinks it has hit upon an idea that addresses both issues simultaneously. The vibrant Theatre for Young Audiences program is designed to fill in some of the gaps in arts exposure and education left in the wake of tightening school budgets, while at the same time generating interest in theater for a brand new group of potential future patrons. Group Sales Coordinator Charlie Misovye believes that theater has a natural draw for kids, and that the importance of exposing a child to live theater at a young age cannot be understated.
“Live theater helps kids to use and develop their imaginations to create the world of the play they are viewing,” he explains. “Most live shows for kids also have a ‘message’; whether it is the classic ‘good versus evil’ or ‘don’t stray from the path,’ the kids are actually learning something to further their education. We like to say that our productions are ‘edutaining’ — educational plus entertaining.”
Although television and movies have a similar ability to bring familiar characters and tales into a more visceral and all-encompassing realm, Misovye thinks that the live, right-in-front-of-you nature of theater provides an experience that even the most advanced technology can’t surpass in terms of storytelling and education.
“The interaction between the audience and the characters in a play is active, which makes it a captivating way for children to learn and develop their imaginations,” he says. “Some of the characters that they are exposed to in books come to life right before their eyes. To a young child, this is big!”
While theater productions geared toward children are fairly common, Theatre at the Center takes particular pride in the fact that it offers a full season of Theatre for Young Audiences productions (see sidebar), as well as a range of theater classes and workshops for kids who are interested in not only observing live theater, but creating it as well (new classes begin in January). Moreover, the theater goes to great lengths to ensure that its young audience productions are legitimate theatrical experiences with the same level of quality and attention to detail that go into its regular productions, plus a number of innovative add-ons that go to the heart of the educational portion of its mission.
“Our Theatre for Young Audiences productions use professional actors, directors, designers and technicians, continually striving to present the best in entertainment for the young and the young at heart,” says Marketing Director Patty Bird. “We offer study guides based on education standards and website links for teachers to use before and after the performances, placing an increased emphasis on these materials because they enhance the education of the students and the curriculum currently taught in the classrooms. We also offer guided behind-the-scenes tours for groups as part of this educational outreach.”
The program’s educational workshops and classes — which are available for both children and adults — offer further opportunities to explore theater beyond simply attending a performance, allowing students to get a more in-depth view of the technical and creative aspects that go into crafting and presenting a play.
“Our classes and workshops provide students of all ages with the environment to explore the world around them through theater, to have fun with creative expression while building self-esteem and to expand communication and creative problem-solving skills,” Bird explains.
Misovye, Bird and the rest of the team at Theatre at the Center are currently gearing up for the upcoming Theatre for Young Audiences holiday production of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which they expect to be a popular title, along with a full slate of new classes and workshops set to begin in January. All of the activity figures to keep everyone exceedingly busy during an already busy time of the year, but they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“We are thrilled to offer all of these educational programs as an outreach extension to help us exceed our goals of serving the children of Indiana,” Bird says. “We believe that theater skills are skills for life!”