"After every show, the first character the kids always want to meet, face to face, is the villain." So says Alison Garrigan, founder and artistic director of Talespinner Children's Theatre. Yes, it seems all of us, even pre-schoolers, are intrigued by the dark side in some way. For instance, how many of us were repelled and yet fascinated by Cruella de Vil, Scar and Maleficent?
But there's a bright side to that interest. As Garrigan notes, "After one show, a 4-year-old went up to the villain and said, 'Now I see why you're mean, it's because you're lonely.'" Those are some of the big insights small people are receiving when they attend TCT productions.
It all began in 2011, with a mission to present international tales in a colorful and involving manner. By gearing each production toward child development, Garrigan and her team seek to create one-hour shows that are entertaining, intelligent and challenging for the youngsters. And by the way, there are often substantial laughs for the adults in the audience.
But that's just the beginning. As Garrigan explains, "We want to give ownership of the show to the kids. So we ask children in the audience to provide sound effects, or help a character solve a problem or answer a question. They love it, and it makes them a part of the story."
The scripts are often adapted from source material (fairy tales, myths, and such) from other lands. And they often involve customs and performance aspects from multiple countries. One show may be based on a Bantu tale but also include elements from Japan, India and other locales around the world. "We want to show children how countries are wonderfully different, yet the people are often the same in many ways."
In their short time as a production company, Talespinner has created quite a niche for itself in educational outreach. They travel to many schools and libraries in the area, as well as educational and family groups, bringing snippets of their shows and putting on workshops for the little ones. TCT also offers residency programs and in-house classes at their theater in the Reinberger Auditorium on Detroit Avenue in Cleveland. "We've been gratified that many people are coming to use TCT as an arts resource, since funding in schools is drying up. And our audiences come to us from everywhere, as far away as Fairlawn, Mentor and Avon Lake."
A major attraction of Talespinner shows are the glorious costumes, puppets and masks that are often employed. As Garrigan says, "We often try to create these theatrical devices out of ordinary materials, so kids can replicate them at home. One time, we made a lion's mane out of torn-up paper bags. And sometimes, the kids actually follow through. One little girl was so sad she couldn't take her favorite dragon home after a show. So we encouraged her to make her own, and a few days later she sent us a picture of her own dragon, which was fabulous!"
The performers are all professional actors, but even they are entranced with this unique experience. Garrigan enjoys seeing the faces of her adult actors light up when the little audience members with their piping voices suddenly talk back to them on stage, during the show. That's a level of immediacy that you don't usually find in most theaters. Also, the process is different for the actors since they all work collaboratively with the writer/adaptor to develop the script and shape the characters.
In the past three seasons, attendance has continued to rise at Talespinner, with some of the outreach efforts tripling or quadrupling in size. And in a new venture, TCT is being included with other local theaters in a production at Cleveland Public Theater titled Fire on the Water. It's the last part of CPT's "elements cycle" of plays, and they asked Talespinner to provide a children's theater perspective for one segment of their production.
One of the bedrock principles of TCT is that the arts should be accessible to all, so they offer some performances on a "pay what you can" basis. And during the 2015 season, comprising four plays, that kind of admission will be available every Friday.
Good thing, because there are lots of kids who could benefit from the energetic storytelling and valuable lessons that these multicultural tales provide. As Garrigan notes, "Kids are so open, accepting and eager. They love hearing stories and we love telling them. It's the perfect combination."
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