Making Children’s Theater Interesting & A Little Steampunk

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“In this time, 1866,” says a young man wearing a bowler hat and goggles, “few people had ever heard of a submarine, let alone seen one.” His partner in the vest nods emphatically to the crowd, as she adds, “But Jules Verne had! And it inspired him to invent this marvelous ship!” The duo runs upstage, and as lights flash and music swells, they tug rigging, lift a giant drop cloth and reveal an 8-foot version of a submarine: The Nautilus. A theater full of children and parents gasps and claps.

If you haven’t cottoned on yet, this is a moment from a theatrical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I had the unique pleasure of being an actor in this production, helping to develop a brand new script and create a family-friendly adventure out of a verbose and complicated 1800s classic. Add to this that the producing entity, Tears of Joy Theatre, is a puppet company, and that the design aesthetic was all steampunk — a subculture well-matched to Vernian science fiction — and you’ve got one hearty bouillabaisse of a project.

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The show closed April 21, but the interesting, delicate balance it struck is worth sharing. For me, and, I imagine, most professional performers with “serious” training, there is a particular underlying challenge when working on a family-friendly show. How does one make a kid’s show, especially one that includes teaching elements, and simultaneously create a viable piece of art? As actors, we want to entertain and move audience members. We especially want to avoid the style of, “Come on, kids! Let me condescend to you, loudly, while annoying your parents for 55 minutes!”

The novel Twenty-Thousand Leagues … features pieces of speculative fiction that have become real, such as SCUBA style diving suits and the prevalence of electric power. Jon Ludwig, Artistic Director of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, and author of the adaptation, managed to work lots of these facts into the script, by using two human characters, Sherman and Forsythia. They are a science and math-obsessed steampunk duo that talks about “nerdy” stuff like it’s cool, while they put on a carefully rehearsed puppet show. And there you go — hooking kids with hip looking young people, talking excitedly about science and math, while they act out an adventure.

At one point in the play, the Nautilus is trapped under an iceberg and the air inside the boat is running out. As yours truly figured math equations out loud to see if the crew would be able to chop through the ice before they suffocated, children always exuberantly shouted answers before I could say them. They didn’t even notice they were learning.

As actors, we were challenged to find actual interest in the things we were saying, discover ways to honestly connect with the younger audience members, and not become fake or cheesy. But it was palpable. When we were real, both kids and adults were engaged.

Luckily, one of the core values of Tears of Joy is that the company “respects children and provides them with opportunities to appreciate, participate and make life changes through the arts.” This really resonates with me. Kids are savvier and more able to work out complex ideas than we sometimes give them credit for. We don’t have to talk down to them. We can usually assume that if something is boring or cheeseball for us, it’s actually not that exciting or believable for kids either.

There was enormous positive response to Twenty-Thousand Leagues …, from both critics and kids. One reviewer noted, “The show is fast paced to keep up with short attention spans but still full of humor and substance to keep the adults in the audience involved.” However, for me the best feedback came from children. When they would ask me later, wide-eyed in the lobby, where they could get a copy of the book, how the lights in the theater worked, or if Capt. Nemo was a real person, I knew I was doing my job: entertaining them long enough to make them curious, and sending them out into the world ready to learn.

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