In New York City, the center of the dramatic world, developing a theater specifically for children is an idea neither novel nor unique. But the founders of Manhattan Childrens Theater, 380 Broadway in Tribeca, are experimenting with a creative twist: treating their youthful audience members like adults.
When Bruce Merrill and Laura Stevens started the organization in 2002, they hoped to create a new theater company dedicated to high-quality, more serious childrens productions.
I feel like its important to bring back the classics in such a way that makes it accessible to kids and doesnt dumb it down by any means, said Stevens, the new theaters executive director. Our mission was to make accessible to our audience classical adaptations as well as poignant new work.
The theaters latest production is Goblin Market, a near-verbatim adaptation of an 1862 poem by Christina Rossetti. In the great tradition of 19th-century childrens tales, its actually scary and suggestively violent. (The show is recommended for children five and over.) Though the goblins, played enthusiastically by Benjamin Oyzon, Jodi Redmond and Marta Reiman, introduce themselves genially to their audience prior to the show, the gruesome masks they later don, designed by Chris Mahle, leave little doubt about the goblin moral disposition.
The story involves two sisters, Laura and Lizzie (Sally Conway and Jannecke Foss), who find themselves beset, morning and evening, by beguiling goblin men hoping to sell them fruit of dubious origin. Laura eventually succumbs and lapses into a goblin-fruit stupor, leaving her younger sister to engage and outwit the beasts.
The production, adapted and directed by Merrill, includes ambitious dance sequences choreographed by Harry Mavromichalis and a percussive soundtrack composed by Michael Vitali. The combination, though uncommon in an average Halloween pageant, visibly thrilled the youngsters in the audience last weekend.
We just want to be able to combine one art form, which is literature, along with other art forms such as theater and dance and music, and be able to incorporate them together into something meaningful, said Merrill, the theaters artistic director.
I think its the most sophisticated, challenging piece that weve put out there for the kids, said Stevens. And, she said, its been a success. Kids rise to the occasion. Its unbelievable.
After several years working at the Vital Theater Company, a Manhattan group Stevens co-founded, she realized that the market for childrens theater in Manhattan was burgeoning and inadequately served.
I would see these young kids come in and just really gain a perspective on the world from this art form, and I was like, My God, theres something here, she said. She decided that an independent childrens theater would have a lot of potential in the city.
Merrill, who had been directing Vitals childrens program on a tight budget at the time, agreed. They formed Manhattan Childrens Theater in May of last year and rented a fourth-floor loft in Tribeca, a space then being used as an art gallery.
The fact that we could incorporate the company Manhattan Childrens Theater in the year 2002 seems sort of funny, I mean how did someone not get that name? said Stevens. I think many companies see childrens theater as a means to an end for their adult productions. They take $300, paint some blocks and put black curtains over the adults set and throw on childrens theater.
Several big-time production companies compete for the citys youth market. But unlike their much larger, more established peers, Manhattan Childrens Theater employs local talent and doesnt aspire to national touring.
I havent found another childrens theater company that is producing here in New York with people in New York and wanting to keep it here, Stevens said. We dont want to tour; we seriously want to be the theater of Manhattan for young audiences.
Indeed, the theaters first season proved surprisingly successful: more than 6,000 customers came through their doors. This enabled a rarity in non-profit theater work, a balanced budget. Fifty percent of that budget they earned through ticket sales alone. Thirty percent came from individual and corporate donors and grant money supports the remainder.
Even so, Stevens admits, Money is a challenge. It will always be a challenge, especially with the rent were paying.
Other difficulties abound. The apartment they use, which they rent from the Access Theater Company, presents a number of artistic dilemmas.
That space itself is a very unique space, said Christie Phillips, the art director. It used to be a gallery. Its got hardwood floors that we cant nail into, plaster walls that we cant screw into, we cant hang anything from the ceiling, and big gorgeous windows that we sometimes have to cover up.
Finding publicity can also be hazardous: like most theater companies, they rely on free newspaper listings for much of their advertising, which, Merrill said, means were at their mercy if they need to bump us for a week.
But with those challenges come several advantages unique to theater for children. Simple demographics offer one: according the Department of City Planning, more than 200,000 kids under 18 live in Manhattan alone. And, partly because the Manhattan Childrens Theater is clearly filling a need in the city, donations have been coming in generously and the incorporation process proved less painful than Merrill and Stevens had anticipated.
But beyond the prosaic benefits, childrens theater offers creative opportunities that are often elusive on the adult stage.
I like to incorporate elements out of the ordinarylike music and dance, said Merrill. So childrens theater very much allows for that; you can be extremely imaginative.
Phillips agreed. Kids I think are willing to take a lot of those leaps with you that adults arent, she said.
But that doesnt necessarily mean theyre gullible. For instance, she explained, she constructed all the trees in Goblin Market using chicken-wire frames with strips of cloth woven through them.
I think that for an adult, thats not very literal, not very realistic, but I think kids definitely appreciate that kind of versatility of materials, she said. Ive designed a lot of shows for theater for adults and if you dont have a lot of money and you have to design someones living room, its a lot different from not having a lot of money and having to design an enchanted forest.
Perhaps its this creative license that allows the Manhattan Childrens Theater, despite budgetary anxiety and an occasionally oppressive work schedule, to remain an optimistic lot.
Some weekends are better than others, said Stevens. But were still a young company. Younger than most of our audience members. Theyll grow with us.