They never go full dark. Even though their musicals are held to 55 minutes, because of the age of their audience - first through fifth graders - when Theatre Under the Stars puts on one of its Musicals For Young Audiences it knows that despite all the warnings, someone might have to make a break for the exit and the bathrooms beyond.
But actually that doesn't happen a lot, says TUTS Education Director Bob Lawson. "The shows are so captivating they pretty much stay in their seat."
Started six years ago, the Musicals for Young Audiences is a praiseworthy mission grounded in practicality. You can't grow an audience if younger people never get exposed to the stage.
"What we try to do is target this to those who may not typically be exposed to musical theater. Either due to cost or the length of the show," Lawson says. "What we've heard from teachers in the past is this is the first exposure to musical theater or theater for a lot of these students and in fact what we've heard too is that this is the first time they've been downtown for some of them.
"What we typicallly see is a microcosm of what is Houston. So when we pick content like Scrooge or the musical that's coming up in the spring, which is The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley Jr., is that it's something that they can relate to."
Some of the actors are actually students at the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, which is part of TUTS. "The thinking was that if we put students onstage in front of students that there could be a visual correlation. And it seems to have worked really really well," Lawson says. "The cast is teaching artists that teach in our school as well as students from the school."
In the Scrooge cast there are about 10 home-school students, Lawson says. "These are daytime performances at 9:30 in the morning and 11:15 so obviously being out of school is a little tough for our non home-schooled students," he explains.
In spring, they focus on a show that is based on a book. "So we've been very careful to pick shows that are on the English reading list in the elementary schools. What we've seen with Flat Stanley is that they literally show up with their books or their Flat Stanleys so you know they've fully participated in the pre-process which is great."
Performances are staged in the 500-seat Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. "So it's really intimate," Lawson says.
Lawson says they've learned some things by doing the program. "In the spring which is book-driven,you market to the English programs.. We didn't do that the first year and we learned the hard way." They've done Flat Stanley for three years and are looking at finding something else to do that comes from a book, Lawson says.
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"The hope is that they will go back and talk about their theater experience, that they'll want to see another. A lot of us can reflect back to our first theater experiences. It's what gets us involved. We were really hoping we could instill in them at a young age that there is this art-form that people sing, dance and act at the same time."
The special nature of the audience means the actors, young and old have to make some adjustments as well, Lawson says. "We have a sitdown at the first rehearsal and we talk about this audience being a non-typical audience.
"We do a study guide and etiquette guide that teachers can download from the web page. Tteachers [in the first year] had told their students to be really quiet and sit in their seats. And we ran the first show six years ago and there were some laugh lines in it and nothing was happening. We realized that teachers had so instructed the kids that they had to behave and because they hadn't been to the theater before they didn't know it was OK to laugh or to applaud so we now build that in that if you find it funny it's OK to laugh and the actors really do enjoy the applause.
"We also to talked to our students and our teaching artists that this is an audience that you need to reach beyond the lip of the stage. That you have to bring them in. It's not just about the performance, it's about making that audience completely believe you. And our students take that very seriously."