Ah, September — back to school, schedules and formal learning in a classroom setting. Arts educators believe that kids should be learning even after the school bell rings, using their imaginations to build the skills necessary for happiness and success in school and in life. Here in Montgomery County, shows at two local arts organizations that specialize in theatre for young audiences offer both arts-based learning and family fun.
In Silver Spring, Interact Story Theatre’s “Bobtail BONG BONG: A Monkey’s Tale” brings a Japanese tale about a silly monkey to life, so children laugh as they learn about empathy, cooperation and sharing.
And in Glen Echo, Adventure Theatre MTC’s “Elephant and Piggie’s “We Are In a Play’” allows loyalty, humor and kindness to take center stage in the form of bffs Gerald and Piggie, ready to party with their friends the Squirelles. There’s music and humor as well as conflicts to resolve, and kids and parents can bond over the pair’s lighthearted adventures in learning and life.
“Elephant and Piggie” director Cara Gabriel goes way back with children’s theater: “Pre-memory!” she insisted, adding that growing up in upstate New York, her parents took her to shows and sent her to dance, music and drama classes. “I just loved it,” she said. “It was my true passion.”
Gabriel thought she might become a performer, but moved toward directing, as her education — a bachelor of arts degree in theater and political science from Middlebury College, a master of arts in performance and theatre for young audiences from Northwestern and a doctorate from University of Michigan in theatre practice — proceeded. “There are hundreds of ways to make a life in the theatre,” she said.
Ultimately, Gabriel became a theatre professor at American University, moving to Montgomery County and starting a family, but a couple of years ago she left academia to do more theatre. “I just started to realize there were things I wanted to do, and I’d been in school for so long,” she said. “I had done the thing I always wanted to do, made a career out of it. I started to feel like, ‘Is this all there is?’”
Well, no. Directing gigs started coming Gabriel’s way, including “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” at Adventure Theatre MTC, where she is now at the helm of the musical based on Mo Willems award-winning “Elephant and Piggie” series/
Best friends forever: Derrick Truby as Gerald and Karen Vincent as Piggie in Adventure Theatre MTC’s “Elephant and Piggie’s ‘We Are In A Play!’”
Photo credit: Sarah Straub
Directing theatre for young audiences “is not that different than directing for adult audiences,” she said. “I like to insert surprises in the work; little different jewels that everyone can take delight in. And no matter who I’m directing for, I like to have an ensemble experience in the production, a team that supports each other and allows collective creative energy to build a world.”
In “Elephant and Piggie,” that means creating a show that parents can enjoy as much as their children. “There are vaudevillian elements, elements from 1950s doo-wop girl groups, a lot of references and fun,” Gabriel pointed out, adding that while adult audiences tend to be polite and measured in their reactions, younger theatergoers come in ready to be direct about what they like and what they don’t.
“Kids are the most brutal audiences,” Gabriel said. “They’ll tell you, by fidgeting in their seats or talking with their friends — whatever way they have to express it — and you know immediately if it’s landing.”
The director finds that honesty rewarding. “I love watching the kids’ faces when they see the show,” she said. “That’s when it sinks in for me. That’s when I know we’ve done good work.”
Over at InterAct Story Theatre, Ali Oliver-Krueger’s definition of good work is similar. But, as the organization’s name implies, InterAct focuses on allowing the preschoolers in the audience to get involved in the play itself. “Our mission is pretty much encapsulated by our tagline, which you’ll find on our website,” she said. “‘Arts are for everyone, and everyone learns from the arts.’ We believe every kid deserves great theater.”
Oliver-Krueger — a teaching artist, director, actor, classical singer and writer-composer — has two bachelor of arts, one in theatre directing management and one in music from the University of North Texas, and a master’s of music in opera performance from the Boston Conservatory. “I come from a military family, so we moved around a lot,” she said. “I spent a great deal of my childhood in Japan, and right here in Montgomery County.”
Oliver-Krueger’s mother, who grew up in rural Japan, was determined to expose her daughter to a wide cross section of the arts. “I always loved music — ever since I was a small child,” the playwright said. “I’m biracial, and I grew up with one foot in the East and one foot in the West. That’s really informed my sensibilities.”
That informs “Bobtail BONG BONG: A Monkey’s Tale,” the play Oliver-Krueger wrote and directed for InterAct Story Theatre. “‘Bobtail BONG BONG’ was based on a Japanese folk tale I learned growing up in Japan,” she said. “It starts off with the monkey playing around and bragging in his favorite tree.” From there, life lessons and hilarity ensue, with Bobtail the monkey making a series of questionable choices that the kids in the audience can relate to, and even participate in.
“As a kid, I thought it was funny, but it troubled me,” said Oliver-Krueger. “As an adult, I saw it all over again and thought, ‘Maybe Bob just needed better advice — a do-over.’ We’re recreating this play to give Bob a do-over, and the kids in the audience are helping us.”
Oliver-Krueger noted that “Bobtail” is an experimental piece for InterAct Story Theatre, but the Wheaton-based professional touring theatre and arts-in-education organization is all about experimenting with children’s theatre in education. Their mission: to bring the arts and arts-based learning opportunities to young audiences in the schools and communities of the area and across the country.
That means going out into Title One schools, appearing at community festivals, providing a free performing arts series during the school year and working to provide meaningful learning experiences that are wrapped in fun, interactive shared activities.
Like “Bobtail BONG BONG,” which runs through the tail end of September at Montgomery College’s Silver Spring campus. “We want kids to be able to empathize, to see the good in the main character and bring it out — flip the script,” said Oliver-Krueger. “We always want to find that little kernel of humanity and bring it out.”
InterAct Story Theatre will present “Bobtail BONG BONG: A Monkey’s Tale” at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, Theatre II, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, on the weekends of Sept. 20 and 28. Performances start at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Fridays, Sept. 20 and 27; at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sept. 21 and 28 and Sunday, Sept. 22.Tickets are $12.50, $10 for age 4 to 11. Call 301-879-9305 or visit https://interactstory.com.
“Elephant and Piggie’s ‘We Are in a Play’” runs through Oct. 27 at Adventure Theatre MTC, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Performances start at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20; 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21; 11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 22; 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m., 2 and 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25, with group and field trip rates available. Call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.