Children’s Theater thrives despite tough times
By Paula Rosenberg | When she founded Literally Alive, Brenda Bell was able to combine her two childhood loves of theater and reading . Now in its tenth season, the children’s theatre company produces original musicals based on classic children’s books and fairy tales. Bell, the company’s creative director, collaborates with composer Mark McGee.
Literally Alive started after Bell commented to her husband that she couldn’t “stand the type of theater that is put on for children.” He challenged her to do something about that. One year later, they moved to New York and Ms. Bell started searching for a theater.
In a city full of theaters, you’d be surprised how hard it is to find a theater,” Ms. Bell observed. Literally Alive started out on the Upper West Side, then had to move to the Upper East Side. When the space they were renting was sold, Ms. Bell moved the company to its current home at The Player’s Theatre on MacDougal Street.
“I love this space. We’re never leaving,” she assured. Now in their third season at Player’s Theatre, Literally Alive has managed to keep their loyal uptown audience while expanding their appeal to families in their (relatively) new neighborhood. “I was surprised by how many families are moving to the Village and Tribeca. A realtor told me that families can get more space downtown, but I think it’s more than that. The pace is more low key down here,” said Bell — who admits contemplating a move downtown from her current home in Washington Heights.
Literally Alive does more than offer theatrical entertainment for children. They provide pre-show art workshops designed for the whole family. During their recent production of “The Selfish Giant,” children got to decorate their own flower pots and were given bags of soil and seeds to take home — since the title character’s garden was an important element in the story. Families also got to meet with cast and crew members for a Q&A period. Ms. Bell is still amused and surprised by the questions that young audience members ask her.
During Beauty and the Beast,” many children “would ask us why Beauty’s sisters were so mean to her and why Papa didn’t do anything about it,” Bell recalls. One of the most touching comments she ever received from a young patron was after a production of “The Little Mermaid.” Bell chose to keep the original ending to Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale. “I always loved the story,” she said. After the show a woman told her, “I loved it but it was so sad.” The woman’s seven year-old daughter commented, “It wasn’t sad. She got what she wanted. She got a mortal soul.”
While many of the children in the audience are ages three through ten, Bell knows the productions also appeal to older children and adults. “I often have parents and grandparents comment that they had no idea they were going to have such a good time too.” The company doesn’t have an age restriction for their shows, says Bell — noting that infants are quite content listening to the music in the shows. “Babies get so much from shows. It’s rare to hear a baby cry during a performance.”
Literally Alive Theater is currently in rehearsals for their holiday production of that much-loved, much-produced holiday classic: “A Christmas Carol.” The Litearlly Alive version, Bell said, seeks to retain the harsh lessons of Dickens without “frightening little children. Our Scrooge is more eccentric than scary.” The show’s choreographer, Stephanie Smith, is also playing one of the ghosts. “She is on roller skates and it looks like she is flying across the stage,” said Ms. Bell.
Children have even gotten in on performing. The shows traditionally have been cast with professional adult actors, but they’ve recently added a children’s chorus. Chorus members can audition for speaking roles in select productions: “I think children get excited seeing other children on stage,” said Bell.
Limecat Family Theater is another company providing entertainment geared towards children. Their co-director, Denise Devin, notes they’ve been performing children’s theater in L.A. since 2002 and just this past year extended their company to New York City.
Limecat had been putting on original productions for adults, but expanded to creating productions for younger audiences. “We started doing children’s programming because our members started having kids and there was nothing for them,” said Devin. She went on to describe expanding to include children’s theater as, “an Amazing Journey. We’re helping introduce theater to a new audience.”
The productions at Limecat are collaborations between co-writers V.J., Devin, and composer/lyricist Chris Reiner. Some of the shows are adaptations of classic fables, while others are original tales.
Devin defines the company’s mission as “bringing wholesome, enriching, highly energizing, quality entertainment to the families and communities of New York City.” Each show includes some sort of interaction between characters on stage and the audience as well as “a deeper meaning or lesson.”
In their current production, “The Goldfish Twins Swim the Big Blue Sea,” the lessons concern honesty, teamwork, and the importance of reaching for your dreams. The collaborators worked hard to be accurate about the traits the different animal characters have. “The goldfish are trying to make it to fresh water, but first stop at a talent show. At the talent show, Heidi the Hermit Crab does a dance — but can only dance from side to side.” Another signature to Limecat productions is the brightly colored mural backdrops and costumes designed by L.A. artist Jeri Batzdoff. “All of our shows are colorful and bright,” notes Ms. Devin.
Limecat has two homes in the Theater District. Productions can be seen at St. Luke’s Theatre and at the Actor’s Temple on Sundays. Freshly minted Midtown West resident Devin is happy about the move to Manhattan. “Our cast is an all adult cast comprised of local New York actors. They have been great from day one.”
The company is preparing for their holiday show, “The Tortoise and the Hare’s Holiday Hoopla.” — whose characters include dancing matzo balls and bah humbugs.
Limecat is funded primarily through ticket sales. Devin feels that despite the economy, parents will continue to take their children to the theater. “When you find something that’s good to do with your children, you want to continue doing it,” she said. Devin is glad there are other successful children’s theater companies throughout the city. “I never see other theaters as competition. Children’s theater is a community. We do it because we love it.”
Literally Alive Theater is located at the Players Theatre (115 MacDougal St.). “A Christmas Carol” runs Sat., Nov. 21 through Wed. Dec. 30. For a schedule, visit www.literallyalive.com. For tickets, visit www.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/666025 or call 212-352-3101. Tickets may also be purchased at the box office, which opens 11 a.m. daily. Use the coupon code “Villager” to save 20%.
Limecat Family Theater’s production of The Goldfish Twins Swim the Big Blue Sea is currently running through November 21, every Saturday, 11:30 a.m. at St. Luke’s Theatre (308 W. 46th Street; and through January 31, 2010 every Sunday, Noon, at the Actors Temple (339 W. 47th Street). The Tortoise and the Hare’s Holiday Hoopla opens at St. Luke’s Theatre on Saturday, November 28. For a complete schedule, visit www.limecat.org. For tickets visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.