25 November 2009

'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow': Children's Theater in America

On Halloween afternoon (i.e., 31 October), I took the NJT train over to Madison, New Jersey, to see a performance of a children’s musical adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s classic story of things that go bump in the night. (Actually, the story’s about things that don’t really go bump, but we’ll get to that later perhaps.) The adaptation is by my friend Kirk Woodward, whom I’ve mentioned several times now on ROT; it’s a further adaptation of Kirk’s non-musical version of the story, performed in Bloomfield four years ago.

Now, I bring this all up not because I’m inclined to write a critique of the performance or the script‑‑I couldn’t really do that even if I wanted to because I’d feel constrained by my long acquaintance with Kirk. (I’ll do a little précis of the production, just to establish the matrix for a discussion.) But I do want to comment on the play from the perspective of children’s theater and its importance and value to the art and business of theater and to popular culture in the United States. As I’m sure everyone who’s read ROT knows by now, I support theater for children as a concept and as a significant part of the world of theater.

Let me fill in some of the particulars of this production, just for the record and all. First, Kirk wrote both the straight version of the Irving story and the musical rendition for Troupe of Vagabonds, the family-theater wing of 12 Miles West, a long-time repertory company in Essex County and now Morris County, New Jersey. Kirk’s been associated with 12 Miles West for some time, pretty much since he moved to Upper Montclair and then Montclair. (12 Miles West occupied a converted movie theater in Bloomfield, just outside Montclair, for many years; they moved to the Playwrights Theatre in Madison three seasons ago. I won’t shill for the company, but I’ll post their web address for those who want to look into them: www.12MilesWest.org. Kirk’s plays are listed on http://spiceplays.com.) The company has produced several of Kirk’s scripts over that time, including his “autobiographical” (but not really) one-person show, Kirk Woodward Tonight. In 2005, when Lenny Bart, artistic director of 12MW, proposed staging an adaptation of Sleepy Hollow, Kirk offered to write the script. (12MW had produced an earlier adaptation by another writer.) He decided to avoid any of the previous adaptations of the story, including (or perhaps especially) the 1958 Disney animation and the more recent Tim Burton version of 1999, and go back to the short story itself. As Kirk told me, the lack of dialogue in Irving’s text allows an adapter freedom to tailor the stage version to his own ideas. To Kirk’s mind, Sleepy Hollow is Irving’s lesson in rationality and level-headedness. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the fear of things that aren’t real, Kirk says Irving’s telling us. (There are some contemporary political debates where that particular lesson would be a good one to have learned. I’m just sayin’.)

For some reason I no longer remember, I didn’t get out to the Center Theatre on Bloomfield Avenue to see the non-musical version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though I believe it had a successful run. In any case, when he was planning the 2009-10 season for 12MW and Troupe of Vagabonds, Bart told Kirk to start thinking of adding songs to the script. The revised, musicalized Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which Kirk says follows the earlier text closely, opened at the company’s new home (since 2007) on Saturday afternoon, 24 October 2009, and played that weekend and the next (which, propitiously, was Halloween weekend). Kirk’s Sleepy Hollow, the musical, is about a 45-minute show; each character/player has a song, and Ichabod Crane’s song is reprised several times, adjusted to suit the moment and forming a sort of connective theme. The other roles are the Narrator, Irving’s alter ego, Diedrich Knickerbocker; Katrina van Tassel, Ichabod’s inamorata; and Brom “Bones” (his real name’s Brom van Brunt, but he gets incensed if someone calls him that), the bully who torments Ichabod and is the teacher’s rival for Katrina’s attentions. Kirk’s conceit is that the Narrator is a storyteller, spinning yarns about the part of New York around the towns of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. He pulls props and bits of costume out of the venerable old trunk familiar to set-ups like this and, like Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager in Our Town, takes on all the incidental characters of the story, from the rich farmer Baltus van Tassel (Katrina’s father) to the little girl who is one of Ichabod’s pupils. It’s a very serviceable structure, a little story theater and a little traditional play.

Very serviceable as well was the set designed by James Sullivan (who also did the lighting, which included several marvelous gobos--spider webs, a couple of jack-o-lanterns), which allowed the Playwrights Theatre’s small playing area to stand in for the roadside near Sleepy Hollow, the dark and scary forest that lay between the village and Ichabod’s house, the van Tassel mansion, and other locations. The floor was painted with a number of different “coverings” to distinguish the scene settings a little--a wood-plank floor on stage right, the road in the center, a cobbled footpath next to that, and the forest’s leaf-strewn floor on stage left. The woods themselves were represented by a stand of trees bearing a few leaves in the colors of fall. The rest of the scenery was suggested by a series of nice black-and-white projections, drawn by Shawna Williams, on a screen at the rear of the stage showing a deeper forest, the windows in the elegant van Tassel home, or Ichabod’s classroom desk. In the climactic scene, the projection depicted the image of the horseman on a rearing steed, his pumpkin head held in the crook of his arm. It worked perfectly well, allowed the actors to move from moment to moment without impediment, kept the stage floor open and uncluttered, and let the story flow without distracting interruptions, adding just enough clever Realism to keep even the youngest viewer from having to wonder what was going on or where the characters all were supposed to be.

I haven’t seen Kirk’s script, but I presume that some director could find ways of loading the show with tech. Aside from not being necessary, I don’t believe that’s what Kirk would want. The script--really all of Kirk’s kids’ plays—is story- and character-focused. It’s about telling a story and letting the actors carry the burden, not the set, the tech, or the “production values.” The costumes (designed by Bunny Mateosian), for instance, help set the period (late 18th/early 19th century) and character without being elaborate, showy, or encumbering. Katrina wears gowns and dresses that show she’s rich and fashion-conscious and macho Brom wears a military coat, breeches, and English dress boots. But none of this draws attention away from the acting and the storytelling. The cast was delightful in these roles: David C. Neal as Knickerbocker, the Narrator; Dylan Manigian as Ichabod; Brittany Wirths as Katrina; and Matt McCarthy as Brom. (Amelia Henry, the stage manager, made sporadic appearances as a maid, mobcap and all, to deliver the occasional prop.) They’re all experienced TOVies (as some apparently call themselves) as well as practiced actors in adult fare. I was most impressed with how well they seemed to understand how to work with children--keeping them in focus while not pandering to them or dumbing down to the level of a Saturday-morning cartoon figure. (This will be part of my main point, when I get to it.) Oh, they’re not the greatest singers on a stage but they put the songs over pleasingly. (Kirk’s songs, especially the lyrics, are great fun to hear; I suspect they’re fun to perform, too. I’ve never asked one of the actors, but I get that impression.) What I’d say is that it seemed more to me as if the characters were singing--you know, Ichabod or Katrina--not the actors. I suspect that’s just my reading, not the director’s intent, but there it is . . . .
Speaking of the director, Arnold Buchiane handled the whole production nicely (with one cavil, as I’ll note in a moment), from the staging to the characterizations. I’m sure there was some collaboration with the actors, and I think that Buchiane has worked in children’s theater before, though his program bio names only adult dramas (and not a lot of light fare in the list), but one way or another he developed an approach that captured both Kirk’s style and the attention of a young audience. (Oh, okay, the adults, too. They have to watch the plays also. A guy behind me was having the time of his life for all I could tell from his frequent guffaws. But, as I’ll argue shortly, theater for children is all about the kids.) When it came to staging not just the plot but Irving’s and Kirk’s point, Buchiane made a pretty fundamental mistake. (Kirk now says he’s going to add a stage direction at the pertinent moment to help prevent another director or actor from going this way.)

In the scene after the headless horseman has attacked Ichabod on the road and Ichabod has disappeared in fright, Brom and Katrina come upon the scene of the encounter and discover “evidence” of what occurred there. Now, Irving makes plain that Brom’s pulled this gag on Ichabod and there’s no actual headless horseman, so the character should play the discovery scene with a wink and a nod, letting us all know that he doesn’t believe what he and Katrina are concluding. (In Irving’s story, Brom lets on “that he knew more . . . than he chose to tell” by looking “exceedingly knowing” when the story’s told and laughs at mentions of the pumpkin.) But McCarthy played the scene as if Brom believed what the legend says about the horseman. Kirk, who didn’t attend all the rehearsals and wasn’t in the theater when this decision was embedded in the production, said he spoke to Buchiane when he saw the result, but either the director or the actor wouldn’t change the performance. What happens, it seems to me (and Kirk confirmed that he has the same fear), is that young viewers who haven’t read the original story yet may go away from the play thinking that Irving promoted the belief in the horseman and spooky supernatural events. But, Kirk insists, Irving was very clear that he didn’t believe in that, that he stood firmly on the side of reason and sense and wrote the story to debunk such superstitions and irrational beliefs. We’re all supposed to know that Brom played a cruel joke on Ichabod, who, because he’d convinced himself that the supernatural is real, believed Brom’s masquerade and fled for no good reason. That lesson’s lost if Brom plays the discovery scene for real instead of as a trick. As Kirk lamented, Buchiane’s approach takes the thematic center out of the play.

Now, this slip-up brings me to one of the points I want to make. I have often declared that for me, good theater must be theatrical and do more than just tell a story. The first criterion simply means that I want theater to use the special attributes of the live stage to accomplish its ends, not try to emulate film, TV, or rock concerts. Children’s theater, for the most part, is innately theatrical--sometimes because the troupe is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Especially novice children’s directors have the idea that because young audiences need to be kept engaged continuously--if you lose the attention of an audience of kids, you can rarely get it back--they try to throw the kitchen sink at them every moment, filling the stage with frenetic activity like . . . well, Saturday-morning cartoons. That’s never really necessary--kids aren’t stupid, just theatrically naïve. Keeping kids engaged isn’t as hard as some people think, and it’s a matter of intellectual and emotional involvement as much as visual, qualities a good children’s script has anyway. (That’s not so easy as it sounds because there are some awful children’s plays out there.)

TOV’s Sleepy Hollow had no problems in the theatricality area. The set with its suggested locales, the rear projections and gobos, the multifarious role of the Narrator all make for a theatrical environment. The script, of course. provides a considerable measure of theatricality, especially the mix of presentational and representational delivery--not to mention the fact that the characters keep breaking into song, not what you’d call street behavior--and the acting style, which might be described as a sort of Innocent Realism, was demonstrably theatrical.

So theatricality is fairly easily accomplished in this arena. What about that other criterion, to do more than just tell a story? Well, that’s not so restrictive, either. Telling a story, first of all, is fine, as long as you want to accomplish something by telling it to me. Good, basic theater is storytelling first. But why are you telling the story? Do you want to teach me something? Okay. Do you want to persuade me? Okay. Do you want to reveal something about life, the world, my town, my neighbors? Okay, too. But what if all you want to do is make me laugh? Man, that’s okay, too--in spades. Entertainment isn’t a shameful goal, though some humorless, over-earnest theater intellectuals may want to make us think so; in fact, it’s noble. Especially if you succeed. So, if you want to give me a great time by telling me a story, you qualify. As long as all you want to do isn’t tell me the story just so I’ll know the story. So neither of my criteria is terribly onerous. (But you’d be surprised how many plays and performances I see that don’t measure up.)

Okay, in the second criterion, Buchiane screwed up in this production. He subverted the reason Kirk decided Irving told the story of Ichabod Crane and the town of Sleepy Hollow. Irving (and Kirk) had a purpose in telling the story--they wanted us to see that believing in unreal things is silly and can lead to terrible consequences (ummm, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, anyone?)--but Buchiane sabotaged the play so that all that was left was the story (well, the outline of the story--the director kind of messed up the narrative, too) and a confused, twisted point. I don’t believe, as some do, that all theater has to teach and that goes for children’s theater, too. But there does have to be a coherent point and the Irving-Woodward idea of debunking superstition is a valid one indeed. It’s not just a good lesson, but it holds the play and story together. The throughline, which ought to be cohesive--even the Harry Potter movies have an internal logic that remains fairly consistent--is part of what children’s theater needs to keep the audience engaged. Adults can handle a certain degree of discontinuity, but children are less likely to be able to make leaps of logic in plot or theme which are the threads that bind the performance together. Even silly plays--and there’s nothing wrong with that--need an internal continuity. Sleepy Hollow provided this--until the director undermined it.

Let me turn to Kirk’s script and the craft manifested in his adaptation. I’ve talked about the theatricality embedded in the script and the cohesive thread, both of which can be either lacking in some children’s plays or so badly composed that they are reduced to frenzy and a thematic sledgehammer. Obviously, just following the guidelines isn’t sufficient for creating a good children’s play; the writer needs talent and an understanding of and respect for the audience for whom he’s writing. I wouldn’t use Sleepy Hollow as a model if I didn’t think Kirk had these qualities--the first of which writers must be born with but the latter, if they’re conscientious, they can develop. Part of the respect of which I speak is the ability to talk to young audiences without insulting them. Good children’s playwrights learn to put themselves in the mindset of a 5-year-old, or a 10-year-old, or a 12-year-old and determine how to say what they want to convey in the kids’ own language. (This is where that understanding comes in!) You can say all kinds of things, silly or profound, to kids if you know how to say it, and good children’s playwrights know (or learn) how to do this. The others just dumb everything down, shout a lot, and run around the stage like clowns in a circus.

Of course, the next thing is to find something worth saying in the play. Children may be uninformed--there’s lots they just don’t know about yet--but they’re not stupid. In fact, their minds are like little sponges: they soak up knowledge and they love to learn. They don’t have to know they’re learning, of course, and a theater isn’t a classroom, but the children’s play ought to have a little something to say. It needn’t be profound, but having an enticing idea to impart helps the play cohere and draws the audience along as the writer lays out the theme. A good children’s play doesn’t have to make its point conspicuous: Kirk’s Sleepy Hollow, for instance, presents Ichabod as an unshakable believer in the supernatural, though he’s often made to admit he’s never seen a ghost or a goblin. Brom frequently teases him about believing in things he can’t see, but no one ever says, ‘If you believe in invisible forces, you could get yourself hurt.’ There are no lines that spell it out; nonetheless, it’s a big part of what makes the play work.

Too many children’s plays don’t really have a point, which makes them weak theater in general and usually pretty silly children’s theater. No wonder they’re often filled with frenetic activity and noise in production--there’s no beef. Of course, children like to be entertained, even if you’re going to try to teach them something, but I don’t think they need to be bombarded with sound and fury. Kids have minds; they can be engaged with intellectual stimulation just as well as visual excitation. They also have well-developed emotions and playwrights can engage them through those as well. The best children’s plays I’ve seen, and the ones that seem to have the most success with their young audiences, are much like good adult drama directed at a kid’s mind. (That “understanding” again.) Farces have lots and lots of activity in them, but not every play’s a farce. If that’s true for adults, why isn’t it true for children, too? Kirk’s Sleepy Hollow didn’t have a lot of running and shouting; even Ichabod’s encounter with the horseman was largely suggested by lighting and sound (theatricality!)--and that was only one scene anyway.

Okay, let’s say we have a good supply of excellent children’s plays, and let’s say there are good companies out there like Troupe of Vagabonds to produce them. Why should that be important? Well, it’s important for two reasons: for the theater and for our society.

Ask any producer or rep company artistic director and each will tell you the same story: audiences are shrinking. Actually, they’re getting older and shrinking. It’s hard as hell to get new subscribers and ticket-buyers as the older, traditional theater-goers die off. The best companies in the country, from the Arena to the Guthrie to the Alley to ACT, have been losing subscribers since before the current economic downturn began. Young people aren’t lining up behind the aging old-timers. The same phenomenon’s evident on Broadway and other commercial theater centers around the country--audiences are getting increasingly grayer.

So where will the new audiences come from? They don’t just sublime--solidify from the ether somehow. They have to be built. Children’s theater trains future audiences. First it introduces children to the idea of theater--live performance as different from TV and movies (and, now, computers and the ‘Net). It shows children that live theater is fun and exciting. Then it teaches them what to expect at a theater performance, how to receive it, how to take it in. Finally, it teaches them the culture of live theater, that is, how to behave in the audience, how to react, how to interact with the live performers. Children’s theater develops the audiences for the adult theater. Of course, the children’s plays the young spectators see have to be good enough to make them want to keep going so they move along the continuum to young adult theater and finally adult drama, but that’s how it has to work. We have to teach children that theater is a worthwhile art for them to consume or they won’t go when they grow up.

For the other repercussion, the advantage to society, you have to accept that art, and theater in particular, is a cultural element worth preserving and advancing. There are plenty of arguments for this contention, but I won’t go into them here. Let’s just start from the position that art and theater are worth supporting; if you don’t buy that, you can stop reading now. (What are you doing on this site anyway, then?) We have seen that in the recent past there are forces of repression that have attacked the arts and the freedom of expression and thought that go along with a vibrant arts tradition. Art that offends the guardians of the establishment is starved or repressed as we’ve seen in totalitarian states of both the right and the left. Now, we have a First Amendment to enshrine our rights to free speech, but we know that that’s not always adequate protection without people willing to speak out against the forces of repression. Furthermore, in times of economic difficulty, as we see now and have seen in recent decades (consider the 1970s and ‘80s), financial support for the arts recedes and arts programs are eliminated or trimmed. Again, it takes advocates to fight the cuts.

What I contend is that when children are introduced to the arts, both in their communities and in school, they grow up with the idea that art is part of their society, that it’s not just an add-on, a pastime for the few, but part of their own lives. They learn to appreciate art’s benefits and values by experiencing it in their earliest years. I’ve written about my feeling concerning arts education and school arts programs, but children’s theaters and children’s plays are among the most potent ways of teaching kids to love this art, inclining them, I’d hope, to support it when they grow up. If they learn to love theater as children, it stands to reason they’ll keep on loving it as grown-ups. People defend what they love against assaults on economic or political grounds. Just as the audiences for theater have to come from somewhere, the supporters of theater as a cultural asset also have to begin somewhere. We have to nurture this appreciation and supporting theater for youngsters--good theater for youngsters, theater worthy of real devotion--to keep the theater alive in perpetuity. You know the line from Milk: “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!”? Well, that’s what we have to do--recruit the next generation of theater-lovers to occupy the seats and stand up the next time someone declares a “culture war.” Good children’s theater is the best way.

[There is a good list of requirements for quality children’s plays in the “Introduction” to Theatre for Young Audiences: 20 Great Plays for Children by Coleman A. Jennings (Macmillan, 2005). I don’t agree with all the criteria, but I do with most of them and certainly with the major ones.]

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