Take a look at what passes for children's theater in this country and one might well conclude that childhood constitutes a warm and fuzzy eighth dimension of tooth-aching sentimentality and genteel innocence. Never mind that two of the most disturbing news stories of 2012 only underscored the somewhat grimmer horror and uncertainty that sometimes confronts kids in our own universe.
And while December's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 young children and six adults, garnered the lion's share of headlines, even more troubling was a report from the Office of Research at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in May that revealed this country continues to have one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. Of the 35 wealthy countries studied by UNICEF, only Romania has a rate that exceeds the 23 percent child poverty suffered by Americans.
The truth is that if the world is a violent and unforgiving place for the most vulnerable and powerless members of society, there's precious little evidence of it in the sometimes condescending, primary-colored, see-no-evil fantasies that dominate our children's stages. It's a cultural disconnect that may be about to change, at least if the 24th St. Theatre's Artistic Director Debbie Devine and Executive Director Jay McAdams have their way.
In February of last year, Devine and McAdams created LAb24, an experimental resident theater company with the singular purpose of developing and staging sophisticated and provocative theater that speaks to families of all ages. The first fully-fledged effort of the company is set to take flight this weekend in the form of their West Coast premiere of British playwright Mike Kenny's Walking the Tightrope.
To find out more about LAb24 and how its inaugural production promises to be a game-changer for theater made for children, L.A. Weekly visited 24th St., where it found Devine, McAdams and their cast rehearsing Tightrope on Keith Mitchell's spare, circus tent of a set.
Devine says that the concept for LAb24 came from a dissatisfaction with the quality of "family-friendly" offerings in this country compared to elsewhere. "Jay and I do a lot of traveling and see what they're doing internationally in this area of theater for young audiences," Devine explains. "The U.S. is just not doing it. Talk about stuck in 1950. I mean, other companies around the world are dealing with things that kids deal with -- war, incest, you know, just incredible amounts of struggle, [and] that just doesn't happen in the U.S."
McAdams adds that the group's decision to lead off with Tightrope came directly out of its rigorous workshop approach. "We've been working on themes in our rehearsals for the last eight months or so," he says. "Themes of storytelling. Themes of family, of loss, various themes. And the focus of the company is family-friendly. So in other words, how do we take a dark topic like loss and grief and address it for all ages?"
Eventually, those questions led them to Kenny's poignant, 2000 tale about a young girl whose annual visits with her doting grandparents take a dark turn when the girl arrives and is perplexed by her beloved Nana's mysterious absence. In past productions, the play's most controversial element has been the grandfather's invention that his deceased wife has gone off to join a circus. For the group, however, it is not the fib but its emotional underpinnings that provided the inspiration on how to make the piece speak to adults as well as children. And speaking on different levels, insists Devine, is what quality theater does no matter what it is.
"When we read it and explored it and spent some time with it," she says, "we realized that for us the story [that] really emerged [was] about the grandfather. It wasn't that the grandfather was so much protecting his granddaughter, but that he was protecting himself. How do you lose a spouse of many, many years that you're completely devoted to? How do you face that? And maybe you can't."
It was while in early rehearsals that news of the Sandy Hook shooting broke. The import of that tragic coincidence did not escape them. "Jay and I talked about that immediately," Devine recalls, "because we're in the middle of this, talking about this character and the struggle of having to face this every day. That children can do it....We get through it. We survive it. And how do you do it? You turn to each other."
Perhaps the group's boldest conceit is devising an onstage character not indicated in Kenny's text at all. The character, an incarnation of the grandmother's loving nurture, takes the form of a circus clown whose presence is felt but never seen by the girl or grandfather. It's a device that was literally dreamed up by Devine. "I just woke up one night," she laughs, "and said, 'What about a clown!?' And then I looked at it and asked, 'Does this work? Will it do what it needs to do? Will this love energy -- this current -- be extraneous or will it be really relevant to what it is we're doing and what it is we're discovering?'"
If the clown wasn't Kenny's creation, the license for it was. Tightrope's 28-page text is essentially published as a single lyrical poem rather than in play-script form. So instead of anything so explicit as stage directions, Kenny leaves all the choices to the director and cast. But that kind of freedom and depth of discovery, Devine notes, "is hard to do. How do you honor the simplicity and beauty of [the poetry] and make sure that you don't topple it over?"
The answer, apparently, is with a lot of talented help. For the child Esme, Devine cast adult actor Paige Lindsey White (who won acclaim in last year's The Children at Boston Court), with the veteran stage actor and poet Mark Bramhall as the grandfather. Mexican physical-theater actor Tony Duran (who starred at the theater in La Razon Blindada) is playing the clown, and the actor-musician Michael Redfield (Small Engine Repair) will be performing music onstage. The design team is rounded out by the ubiquitous John Zalewski on sound, Dan Weingarten on lights, costumer Ela Jo Erwin and video designer Matthew Hill.
It remains to be seen as to whether the effort will pay off with the kind of adult-sophisticated yet child-engaging show to which the group aspires. For his part, Bramhall is confident. "What's most moving at the end of any theatrical piece," he muses, "is human beings coming together -- [both] onstage and across the footlights simultaneously. So that at a certain moment, the communal nature of the art form really does take on a life. We're not there yet. But when we are, I'm hoping that we get to that place ... [where] something kind of miraculous happens."
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Walking the Tightrope opens at 24th St. Theatre on January 26.