“A Child’s Garden of Verses” continues through Saturday at the Alliance Theatre. Details, tickets ($10) HERE.
The Alliance Theatre is getting the creative juices flowing, and maybe the juice boxes while they’re at it.
The company’s Theatre for the Very Young program introduces children 18 months to 5 years to live theater. A Child’s Garden of Verses, based on the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, runs through Saturday.
Written by Barry Kornhauser and directed by Rosemary Newcott, A Child’s Garden of Verses takes little ones through an interactive, multi-sensory experience that gets them out of their seats and into the show. Audience members of all ages can expect to plant seeds, rake leaves, help build a boat, meet characters in the garden and eat apple slices.
When creating the show, Newcott says, “I wanted to start with a text and remembered how much I enjoyed Robert Lewis Stevenson’s poetry when I was a child.” Parents may remember Stevenson’s poems from their youth, but children are attracted to the sing-songy quality of the rhymes, which Kornhauser molded into a play with a short storyline and lots of interaction.
“I have never had a theater experience that is so inclusive,” Newcott says. “Everyone is invited to play. Children as young as 18 months may wander into an acting area at any time and simply become part of the action. The performers are ready to adjust to any change in format.”
Actor Denise Arribas, who rounds out a cast that includes Holly Stevenson, Scott DePoy and Terry Guest, says the actors have to build a child-friendly vocabulary that keeps the show moving.
“We have to encourage the children to think as an ensemble, which is something you haven’t necessarily figured out as at 1 year old,” Arribas says. “We make it into a game of how many and how fast you can do it, so they think, ‘Of course I want to win this game, so I am going to do this really fast!’ When you say ‘game,’ it’s ridiculous how involved the kids get.”
Arribas is quick to point out that the show is tailored to each child’s comfort level. “We push as much as they will let us. It’s about them having fun, even if they want to do it in their seat and not come onstage with us. Maybe when they grow up, they’ll be the directors, not the actors.”
Think little ones don’t respond to theater this early? You might be surprised. The program began in 1980s Europe, when studies showed that those age 3 and younger had a greater capability to engage socially and emotionally than previously known. Theaters in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom began to produce festivals for young audiences.
The program has since found several U.S. homes: Seattle Children’s Theatre, Emerald City Theatre in Chicago, and SPARK! Theatre in Austin and the Alliance, among others.
Parents like the program, too. Smruti P. Jani discovered it online when searching for artistic endeavors for her 3-year-old son, Arjun. At first a bit reserved, Arjun now joins in on the action.
“He’s a sponge right now,” Jani says. “Every experience he has at this age will have an enormous impact on his development. I think theater has fueled his imagination and creative play. We enact some of what we’ve seen together at home.”
Actor Rob Lawhon hoped to create a future theater fan when he brought son Gibson to The Tranquil Tortoise and the Hoppity Hare. “I remember the moment when I decided to be an actor when I was a kid,” Lawhon says. “I’d like to give him opportunities to have that same click that I had with the arts.”
Lawhon calls Gibson’s reactions to the show “priceless.”
“The show affects him in the way that it’s supposed to, he looks where he’s supposed to look, and he follows the narrative. It holds his attention for up to an hour, and for a 2-year-old, that’s incredible.”
After the show, the kids aren’t the only ones in need of naps.
“Let me tell you, I do boot camp, I work out and after every show, it feels just as tiring as a workout!” Arribas says. “It’s so much engagement, and you can’t take a mental break. This isn’t improv for adults. You can’t be sarcastic or go to a funny place with it. You have to be simple, present and honest for them. That’s when they get the most out of it.”
Hally Joseph is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta. She’s working toward her MFA in writing at SCAD Atlanta.