Where the Wild Things Are

Why the most experimental theater in town might just be for kids

SUNNY REHEARSAL ROOM at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, the artistic director, head costumer, music director, and 13 other members of the theater’s core creative team have gathered to discuss the season-opening production, Bert & Ernie, Goodnight! They set down cups of coffee, open laptop computers, and spread out blueprints. Then they begin to talk about “pigeonography”—the choreography of dancing pigeons.

During the next two hours, they also discuss dancing sheep, exploding light bulbs, and the problem of where to place a microphone on a sweaty actor. “He’s more of a chest sweater than a side sweater,” notes Peter Brosius, the theater’s artistic director. These things are important: The mic might short out.

The Children’s Theatre Company, or CTC, often runs into these technical issues. Brosius figures that a recent production of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie may have been the messiest play in the history of Twin Cities theater. “At the end of a show,” he recalls, “we’d have two feet of trash on the stage—we just wrecked the place.”

Anyone who grew up in the Twin Cities over the last 40 years likely has memories of school trips and family outings to the CTC, which occupies the southern end of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts complex—like an animated film amid all the still lifes. With 289 employees and a budget of slightly more than $10.5 million, the CTC is the largest children’s theater in the country (the second-largest is in Seattle). It serves about 300,000 young people and their families every year with a full season of plays, theater-arts training, an annual tour, and other outreach programs.

But from the start, the CTC was never meant to be children’s theater so much as good theater that happens to be performed for children. It opened two years after the Guthrie Theater, in 1965, and is similarly rooted in the regional theater movement that established high-quality, dramatic theater in communities beyond Broadway. The CTC is now the second-largest theater of any kind in the Twin Cities, next to the Guthrie. It hires some of the same directors as the Guthrie, and it commissions some of the same playwrights. It almost never dolls up its actors in animal costumes. In 2003, confirming its all-ages appeal, the CTC became the first children’s theater to win a Tony Award for best regional theater (the same recognition given two years later to the innovative Theatre de la Jeune Lune). Not surprisingly, about 25 percent of the CTC audience comes without children at all, including a significant number of young people on first dates.

Recently, the CTC has grown more experimental—and on a larger scale than any local company since Jeune Lune folded last year. In particular, the addition in 2005 of a black-box theater has allowed for more radical ways of telling stories. The CTC has staged a play enacted largely through video installations, a play with contemporary shadow puppets performed by a cutting-edge Italian troupe, and several shows integrating spoken-word and hip-hop. For last year’s production of Romeo & Juliet, aimed at teenagers, there was no stage, set, or seating; the actors moved among the audience, which remained standing throughout the show.

The experimentation partly derives from the fact that children’s theater, a relatively new genre, has a narrow repertory from which to draw. Elissa Adams, the CTC’s director of new play development, receives numerous unsolicited scripts but describes most of them as “limited stereotypes of what children’s theater is”—talking-animal plays, productions utilizing just a handful of actors (perfect for community centers!). “Children hate cute, especially nowadays,” she says.

“We’re blessed by the fact that there’s no canon,” says Brosius. “You gotta create it.” So at a time when many theaters, in need of cash, are staging tried-and-true productions, the CTC devotes a third to one-half of every season to new works. Few other large theaters—or any kind of arts institution—would ever program that much new work, given audiences’ clear preference for the classics. But the CTC doesn’t struggle to sell new plays to its audience the way that orchestras, for instance, struggle to sell new music. New plays aren’t odd to kids, nor are they particularly special; they’re just plays. “It gives us more freedom,” says Adams, “because they’re not evaluating that way.”

The CTC generally commissions playwrights who have little to no experience in children’s theater, in order to distance itself from children’s theater clichés. The Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, for example, was hired to adapt A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, for the CTC’s 2002 season. A year later, Cruz won the Pulitzer Prize for an “adult” play, Anna in the Tropics.

The CTC gives these writers just two rules: First, Brosius jokes, do not injure the audience. Second, blow their minds.

In the past year, the CTC, like most businesses, has suffered pay cuts, staff reductions, and a leaner budget. But the CTC’s mission is still highly appealing to corporate sponsors, such as Best Buy, H. B. Fuller, and Target. The CTC also generates revenue by licensing the commissioned plays. Such fiscal good fortune means it can afford to spend an average of two and a half years on each new play and to hire top designers and creative costumers. “Write us a play in verse with a full circus and we’ll produce it,” boasts Brosius.

On a long gray table just outside Brosius’s office, Eduardo Sicangco, a veteran set and costume designer from New York, is showing the CTC staff his latest sketches for Cinderella, which opens this month on the main stage. The CTC has rarely offered a straight take on fairy tales—its recent Hansel and Gretel replaced the kids’ evil stepmother with two devoted but poor parents, turning the story into an allegory on poverty—and this version of Cinderella is no exception. It features stepsisters in drag, a kitchen that cleans itself, and actors that sometimes break character to riff on American Idol. Sicangco generally works on operas and ballets, and his renderings are exquisite, the costume ideas wildly fantastic. “In another costume shop, they’d laugh me out of there,” he says. “Here, they don’t bat an eye.”

An advantage of creating for kids is that, unlike most adults, they don’t have any preconceptions of how a particular play should be done—they probably haven’t seen any other productions of Romeo & Juliet or Cinderella. “Kids don’t have any baggage,” says Sicangco. “It’s kind of wonderful.”

The experimentation has so far been going over well, with CTC’s youthful audiences typically shouting their approval and literally falling down in the aisles. During the onstage chaos of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, says Brosius, “Kids were laughing their butts off, they were rocking. If they could’ve held up lighters….”

For all the fun and games, however, the goal is serious. “It’s hugely important,” says Brosius, “that we re-orient young people’s expectations of theater. You can excite them to an art form forever or turn them off to an art form forever. The stakes are high. So yeah, we’ve got something to prove.”

Cinderella opens November 10 at the Children’s Theatre Company. For details, call the box office at 612-874-0400 or visit childrenstheatrecompany.org.

Tim Gihring is Minnesota Monthly’s senior writer and arts editor.