Children's theater in Houston, and elsewhere, is all too often an afterthought. Skimpy sets, half-assed scripts and hammy acting are pretty much the rule for audiences who are presumed to be easily amused. It's dinner theater for the Lunchables crowd.
But a live theater experience can be a terrific way to get kids interested in history and culture. Four local actors, all involved with theater arts in the public schools, certainly thought so in 1997 when they created the InterActive Theater Company. They're in their third season now, putting on elaborate productions tied to such school-year themes as Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month. For each play, the group also produces a TAAS-tied workbook for teachers that features reading, writing and math exercises, along with games and mazes based on the play.
Most important, says troupe member Angela Foster, the InterActive Theater players don't go to the classrooms. The classes come to them. "We really try to give kids an experience in theater. We pull them out of their environment and teach them how to be in a theater," she says. "It's just a tremendous experience -- there are these huge sets, big lights and elaborate costumes."
The group performs at Lambert Hall, a former church at Heights Boulevard and 17th Street that has been converted into an inviting, balconied performance space. Their most recent play, 1492, Ocean Blue, Columbus & You, enthralled youngsters with a well-developed but easily grasped tale of the explorer's troubles, all played out on a set featuring a massive reproduction of the Santa Maria that ingeniously transformed itself into the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The action was fast-paced, often frenetic, but the audience still came away with an understanding of what Columbus accomplished.
Foster and the other permanent members of the troupe, Robb Brunson and the husband-and-wife team of Westley and Lisa Edmundson, work closely with schools, conducting workshops for teachers and encouraging suggestions on what stories to choose. They put a special emphasis on the HISD schools whose children are considered most at-risk because of economic or educational factors.
The theater company is a full-time job for the four actors, who are usually supplemented by guest performers. Cash flow is helped along by performing repertory pieces based on Don Quixote or Jack and the Beanstalk at sites other than Lambert Hall. "We're definitely holding our own," Foster says, but they're not getting rich off their efforts. Then again, since most of them have résumés dotted with local teaching and acting gigs, it's not like they're used to big paychecks.
The current production, The Days and Knights of King Arthur, a telling of the Round Table legend, features swordplay, sorcery, dragons and audience interaction. Kids will get to vote on plot twists, choosing, for instance, whether they want the knights to battle the Skeleton Army or the Two-Headed Knight. King Arthur runs through December 18, although there will be no performances November 23 through 27. It will be followed by a version of the African folk tale Anansi the Spider, which will run from February 1 to March 4. The season also includes Rabbit Tales, which is a "Spring Break Special," and Peter Pan.
"A lot of kids, especially here in the Heights, don't get a lot of exposure to the arts," says Brunson. "Their world is their neighborhood. We want to use literature as a means of bringing in students and inspiring them as to how big the world really is."
The InterActive Theater Company performs at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Showtimes are 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays. Tickets for adults and children are $5; for groups over 50, tickets are $4 each. Call (713)862-7112 or check out www.hern.orginteractivetheater for more information.
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