Ducks, Pizza, and Imaginary Carrots: QC Arts Presents Child’s Play, Oct. 4 at Moline High School Print
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 01 October 2008 02:26

ensemble members of Child's Play Thirty years after the group's inception, executive director June Podagrosi remembers the moment that she and her husband, Victor, embarked on the project that would become Child's Play Touring Theatre, the professional, Chicago-based organization dedicated to producing stage works for children, written by children. Moreover, she remembers the frog and the hillbilly that inspired them.

"Victor was teaching speech and theatre at Parkland College" in Champaign, Illinois, says Podagrosi, "and some people at Parkland came to him and said, ‘You know, we've got these stories from these [grade-school] kids in our young author's program, and we don't know what to do with them. Do you think you and your theatre class could do something with these?'

"We read the material," Podagrosi continues, "and we just fell in love with these stories. They were so funny. I can still remember some of the opening lines. One was ‘Old Albert was a lumpidy, dumpidy, warty sort of a frog, and more than anything, he wanted to be human.' And Victor and I looked at each other and went, ‘What a great character! A lumpidy, dumpidy, warty sort of a frog? It's so vivid!'

"Or ‘Old Hillybilly John was a good ol' boy, even though his face did look like it was run over by a pickup truck, and the pickup truck just backed up and run over it again.' It was amazing. I mean, who could write this stuff? With one sentence of character description, you got this whole picture of Hillbilly John.

"And we found our calling," says Podagrosi. "We were hooked."

Beginning with 1978's staged readings involving Old Albert, Hillbilly John, and other youth-invented characters, Child's Play - with its two touring companies and bookings at nearly 300 schools and performance venues per year - has subsequently hooked an estimated 3.5 million others nationwide, and continues to do so in the current tour of its one-act production, Kids for President. Here as the latest guests in Quad City Arts' Visiting Artist series, members of the theatre troupe (all adults) will perform this assemblage of children's stories at Moline High School on October 4, a public performance that concludes a week of area-wide, Child's Play-hosted writing workshops designed, says Podagrosi, to celebrate "the commonalities of kids' imaginations."

A performer since the age of three, New York native and Brooklyn College graduate Podagrosi says her personal interest in children's theatre intensified while helping lead a youth-oriented program at the Brooklyn Museum.

"The museum actually gave me kind of a pre-Child's Play template," Podagrosi says. "It was a really interdisciplinary, multi-cultural, arts-intensive program that lasted all summer. Kids would write their own stories, or make their own jewelry, or draw pictures, and it was the kind of thing that stuck with me. I wanted to find ways to continue doing that kind of thing, and validate the creativity of children."

Podagrosi met her future husband, Victor (who passed away in 1995), while working on her master's degree in dance at the University of Illinois. "We were looking for a way to work together," she says, and those stories written through Parkland College's young-authors program proved to be the inspiration. "We just looked at each other and went, ‘Oh my God, this is it.'"

The couple's concept was for a traveling theatre troupe that would employ adult professionals to star in and stage adaptations of stories written solely by children, with one of the caveats being that "they always had to have a message," says Podagrosi. "Even if it was a great, entertaining piece, we always had to ask, ‘What's the message behind it?' Because as children's performing artists, we have a responsibility to communicate positive messages to children."

After assembling other performers and directors, Child's Play produced works based on local submissions from 1979 to 1982, at which point the organization moved to Chicago and began touring nationally. Broader success soon followed: Child's Play received an NEA grant and performed at Highland Park's Ravinia in 1984, initiated the Chicago Young Writers Project in 1986, and performed in New York's Producers Association of Children's Theatre Showcase in 1987.

ensemble members of Child's Play Podagrosi believes that one of the reasons children have been so receptive to the group's offerings is because "there's a lot of audience participation - times when the kids make sound effects, or help us in some other way. We want there to be a sense of participation, because we're getting the material from the kids, and we want to keep giving it back to them."

More specifically, though, she believes Child's Play's charm lies in its being composed of "material and thoughts and dreams that are coming from other children just like them.

"Like, we have a duck story," she continues, "and it's all about divorce. It's about a troubled marriage, but it's done in duck - we quack the whole thing, and a narrator translates the duck's quacking. The shows can make serious subjects very accessible."

Less serious subjects, too. "One of our actresses went to Italy and was working with kids there, and she got them to write this piece about pizza. The history of pizza, how to make a pizza ... . Cute, cute, cute, cute, cute piece. And that's what we want kids to think about. Their commonalities. ‘You like pizza? Hey, I like pizza!'"

Its "homespun quality," as Podagrosi describes it, is also a large part of the troupe's appeal. "Our shows have an old-fashioned feel to them. We have these hand-painted drops, and the costumes are simple ... . We let the kids fill in the blanks. If we're going to do a bunny, we don't do the full bunny thing - we put a head on an actor and give him a carrot, and he's a bunny."

The low-rent ruse works. Podagrosi says that following a Child's Play performance, the troupe will routinely receive drawings from schoolchildren of the plays that were performed, "and if it [the show] was about a little rabbit, you'd have drawings of the rabbit as a rabbit. Not as an actor.

"And the imaginary carrots," she continues. "In the show, we'd have kids throw carrots on stage that were imaginary, but they would draw the carrots they threw. Imaginary carrots in their drawings. And that's why I love kids. Because they do that - they suspend their disbelief. As adults, we all should learn how to do that."

As it takes place in a country where children are in charge, Kids for President certainly requires a willing suspension of disbelief; Podagrosi describes it as a collection of short pieces that feature "a little girl, Lucy, who wants to run for president. And we then go back in time and talk about all the things that influenced her to become socially aware and politically aware."

The show has also proven to be the most popular and enduring title in Child's Play's history, having been routinely presented - in election years - since its sold-out 1988 debut at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. 1992's Kids for President, which toured nationwide, made a stop at the Ross Perot Theatre in Texarkana; 1996's version kicked off its national tour during the New Hampshire primaries, and performed at the Chicago Theatre in conjunction with Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village book-signing.

And while much of the Kids for President material is new for 2008, Podagrosi says that "there are some pieces that get carried over because they're so powerful. We have a piece that came out of the show in '96 that we're remounting in this one because of [its] song ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,' which is still topical. Maybe now more than ever."

Regarding the debuting material, Podagrosi says, "Our workshops generate the stories for the next year's touring show, so when we did the workshops for Kids for President last year, we got a lot of the pieces that we're performing in this particular show." Similarly, the stories being written in this year's nationwide Child's Play workshops - including the Quad Cities' - will be considered for inclusion in next year's traveling show, a remount of 2001's Writing Our World.

"We're hoping that we'll come back next year," suggests Podagrosi with a laugh, "and do a Writing Our World show that would feature stories from kids in your community."

She adds that students are always welcome to submit their writings to the organization's Web site at CPTT.org. "Whatever they send us, we'll consider doing in the show," says Podagrosi. "Every time I think, ‘I've heard it all ... ,' all of a sudden I'm reading another new story, and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, this is totally out there!'"

 

Members of the Child's Play Touring Theatre present Kids for President at Moline High School on Friday, October 4, at 7 p.m. Admission is free, although donations will be accepted, and more information on Quad City Arts' Visiting Artist series is available at QuadCityArts.com.