Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Making a Splash at Fairyland

By C.J. Hirschfield

I’ve written before about the concept of Theatre for the Very Young, but I’d never actually experienced it myself before last week.

On paper it looked very exciting—enough so that Children’s Fairyland didn’t hesitate to partner with Nina Meehan and her Bay Area Children’s Theatre to offer this Bay Area first.

TVY is generally defined as professional theater led by adults performing for an audience of months-old babies to toddlers who are accompanied by parents or adult companions. Shows typically last about 40 minutes and are held in quiet, enclosed spaces without seats.
England, Sweden, Australia and Scotland embrace the concept. Here in the U.S., Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, and Seattle have taken the lead.

Fairyland seemed to be the perfect site for this special theatrical performance. We understand completely that unlocking imaginations at a very young age and exploring early language enhances opportunities to learn. And if a child is pre-verbal? No problem. Kids still want to be amazed and engaged and to explore their world. And since we’ve been in the memory-making business for 66 years now, we also knew that this intimate experience would encourage adults to connect with kids. 

Which is how I found myself sitting on a pillow with 35 other people in a newly installed yurt-like performance space at Fairyland on a beautiful Saturday morning – at a sold-out show, I might add!
Actors Jamella Cross and Andrew Mondello. Photo by Nina Meehan.

The show is called “Splish Splash,” and here’s the description: “From the familiar world of bath time and rubber duckies to sailing on the ocean and spotting fantastic fish, this interactive theater experience invites munchkins to explore the wonders of water and discover what this precious resource means to us.”

The journey of a drop of water from bath time to pipes, from the ocean to the clouds, and back to earth as rain was led by three talented professional actors: Andrew Mondello and Jamilla Cross (both of whom starred in our hit production of “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site”) and Kate Brennan.

Fairyland’s theater director, Doyle Ott, could not be more pleased with the production’s premiere. “When I watched the kids’ reactions to the performance,” he told me, “it reminded me of how alive the world is to a small child.”

I myself saw kids’ eyes widen as they saw huge, brightly colored fish “swim” by them. Many were inspired to pet, kiss or hug them. I observed toddlers lying on their backs to hear a story about cloud shapes. There were singalongs, a little tap dancing and opportunities  to play musical pipes, launch a rubber ducky into water and pretend to swim in the ocean. With TVY, getting into the act is encouraged; parents don’t have to worry about their child’s random explorations.

I admit that I was sneaking peeks at the families while the show was going on. Many kids started out in laps and later were moved to throw themselves into the activity of the moment. Parents were guiding, hugging and smiling.  Doyle’s hope is that the production might inspire parents to explore new ways to play with their kids.

We love the fact that for many of these kids, “Splish Splash” represents their first exposure to live performing arts. When they grow up, they’ll no doubt learn to sit quietly and applaud at the right places. But until then, TVY celebrates the fact that they can react in any way that works for them, and it’s better than OK.

Doyle, who is also an actor and a college professor, has participated in hundreds of theatrical productions. But this is no doubt the first show in which he has to clean certain items with antibacterial wipes after each performance. That’s just how we roll with Theatre for the Very Young.

Splish Splash runs at Children’s Fairyland Fridays through Sundays through Nov. 20. For more information and tickets, go to the Bay Area Children's Theatre website.
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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