Emily Whitworth is a rock star.
The 24-year-old actor, who grew up in the D.C. area and earned a degree in public relations and strategic communications at American University, is currently wielding 75 puppets at Imagination Stage, alongside Alex Turner and Daniel Glenn Westbrook, and she’s loving it.
“I never want to do a show for adults again,” she laughed. “Kate, our director, told us that performing for the 3-to-5 age group is the closest thing to being a rock star — and it’s so true!”
“Kate,” or Kathryn Chase Bryer, is Imagination Stage’s associate artistic director as well as the director of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show,” running through Oct. 27 in the arts organization’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre. And she’s part of a creative team that is bringing the stories of Eric Carle to life to kick off a very important season.
“We thought for our 40th anniversary, it would be great to open our doors to a wide audience,” said Janet Stanford, Imagination Stage’s founding artistic director. “People who would be attracted by a big title find their way here, bring their little ones and hopefully come back and see what else we have.”
What Imagination Stage has, and what it has offered since its founding 40 years ago as Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, or BAPA, is somewhere in between a professional theatre and a learning academy. It is both those things, of course, but it’s also a place where diversity is celebrated and explored, and where the arts and learning come together in theater experiences for young people at every age and stage of development.
“We feel an imperative to get kids and their families in here as early as possible,” Stanford said, citing NEA studies that show the benefits of exposing children to good theatre by age 12. “When you’re tiny, you’re very kinesthetic; you need interaction with an idea to process it.”
Which is why Imagination Stage’s Theatre for the Very Young features interactive experiences, with props and prompts to keep them engaged. “There’s never more than three minutes that goes by without them being invited to participate in some way,” Stanford added. “That means they’re being engaged physically as well as mentally and emotionally.”
And what better way to engage children than by staging some of the best-loved stories from author-designer-illustrator Eric Carle. Carle, 90, collaborated on his first book, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” in 1967; he wrote and illustrated “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in 1969 and in the half-century since, has authored and illustrated more than 70 books for children. So, 2019 is an anniversary year for “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” as well as Imagination Stage.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Stanford noted. “One of the reasons we put ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ in our season was to have a special title to kick off the anniversary year.”
The other big reason is that it’s one of those books that not only the children in the audience have grown up with, but their parents (and perhaps even a few grandparents) grew up with it, too. “It has tremendous longevity,” said Stanford. “And it’s delightful to see these 3-year-olds: they know the books by heart, they know the characters.
Daniel Glenn Westbrook, Emily Whitworth and Alex Turner in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show.”
Photo credit: Margot Schulman
“It’s like you or me going to see Shakespeare and recognizing Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. Eric Carle: that’s their literary reference, and there’s something very empowering and pleasing about that, when you can show off your literary expertise.”
Developing an age-appropriate sense of literary expertise is part of what Imagination Stage was created to do. Originally formed as an educational facility, Stanford noted that there was no theatre attached when BAPA was founded in 1979. Over four decades, the organization has taken its mission — to empower all young people to discover their voice and identity through performing arts education and professional theatre — to ever-increasing heights.
“In the ’80s, we did a lot of work with kids with disabilities, and that informed the way we grew,” Stanford said. “We were finding many different ways to get an idea across and invite children to participate in creative work. In the ’90s, we started our professional theatre at White Flint, before it was razed to the ground, and we developed an audience there.”
In 2001, the flagship building in Bethesda brought all Imagination Stage operations — education and professional theatre — under one roof, although more recently, they have expanded into D.C., participating in social justice through theatre for change.
Back in Bethesda, Stanford is hoping this show will usher in the next generation of Imagination Stage families. “We have, for the last eight years, looked for plays that target the early childhood years, ages 1 through 4,” she explained. “We have very small audiences and interactive exchanges for children where they can get up on the stage and contribute to the storytelling.”
“The Hungry Caterpillar Show”’ is actually four stories from Eric Carle: “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, “The Very Lonely Firefly,” “10 Little Rubber Ducks” and the eponymous “Hungry Caterpillar.” “In addition to lifting the drawings kids love out of the book and making them three-dimensional and very real, there’s a lovely kind of movement through the stories. It’s an emotional journey — but gentle,” Stanford said. Using puppets and puppeteers allows Carle’s original designs to be used in a unique way that refers back to the book, creating stage pictures that recreate the feeling a bedtime story.
“One of the secret joys of being a parent is reading to your child, sharing a story and feeling their response to it,” observed Stanford. “The theatre steps up that experience to a heightened place with expert storytellers, music and lighting design, and beautiful puppets.
“I can guarantee you,” she added, “after seeing this, kids will be playing ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear’ and ‘The Very Lonely Firefly’ with flashlights for days to come, because seeing something acted out inspires the imagination.”
And Whitworth and her fellow actors are ready to inspire.
While she said the role is “a joy and a dream,” Whitworth also described performing for young audiences as “a unique challenge in honesty.
“Kids can sniff out if you’re not being authentic, if you’re not present — and it’s a marathon. They don’t check out; these kids are with you, and in it to win it!”
Another challenge: Whitworth said that working with puppets has opened her eyes to a totally new kind of performance.
“As an actor, you think of yourself as a certain type, but with puppetry, you can be anything,” she said. “It opens up a lot of options as a performer. Alex (Vernon, the show’s puppet and movement director) said that our job is almost like being animal handlers. Each puppet has its own personality and way of moving, and it’s our job to show that off.”
And whereas she loves the “rock star” feeling that puppetry brings, Whitworth appreciates being able to deliver a message to kids and their parents every time she steps on the stage.
“Eric Carle’s work is about discovery,” she said. “These stories encourage us to ‘slow down, simplify and be kind;’ that adventure can be positive and the things you don’t know don’t have to be scary. They can be good things that guide you to friendship and connection.
“This show is full of heart,” she added. “Never condescending. It’s so timeless, so inviting, welcoming and inclusive, and we need more of that.”
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show” runs through Oct. 27 in Imagination Stage’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave, Bethesda. Shows start at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with weekday field trip performances available Tickets range from $15 to $35. Call 301-280-1660 or visit imaginationstage.org.