Cristin Thomas said Texas Woman's University's summer children's show opened students' eyes.
Johnny Simons put his version of Pinocchio in the 16th-century Italian style of commedia dell'arte. When local children come to see the show, a troupe of masked performers will crack wise, leap and dance and invite the audience to join the performers in the journey of a little wooden doll who turns into a boy.
What will look like magic to the children is a yeoman's job for the performers - a small ensemble of students and performers who are learning that children are a more demanding audience.
"A lot of actors who aren't trained in performing for children make the mistake of talking down to children," said TWU graduate student Jennie Patten, who plays the narrator and trickster's role of Arlecchino - the Harlequin. "I've learned that when you perform for children, you don't talk down to them, because they'll call you on it."
Thomas is in her second year of running the TWU summer children's theater. She was a key player in taking Playmakers of Baton Rouge, a professional children's theater, from a grass-roots nonprofit to a professional company that stages shows in the Shaw Center for the Arts, a top-tier space.
Last summer, TWU thespians staged If You Give Mouse a Cookie and followed it up with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Audiences filled the Redbud Theater Complex. That's not necessarily a feat, but not every TWU production packs the house.
"When we did Mouse last summer, we sold out both weekends," Thomas said. "It wasn't a fluke. Denton already has a children's theater group that has children and teens performing for children. Denton Community Theatre is already doing that, and doing it well. When I got to Denton and started looking around, what I noticed is that there wasn't a children's theater that was adults making theater for children. I thought there was room for that."
Thomas is now an adjunct faculty member with the theater program, teaching a course to train adults to perform and produce children's theater. PINOCCHIO
• Who: a commedia dell'arte comedy by Johnny Simons, performed by the TWU Drama• When: 1 p.m. today; 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. June 23-24; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. June 25; 2 p.m. June 26• Where: Redbud Theater Complex, located on the northwest side of Hubbard Hall on TWU's Denton campus.• Details: Running time is 50 minutes. No intermission. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, children and seniors. To make reservations, call 940-898-2020 or visit www.twu.edu/drama .
Thomas said a lot of people presume that children's theater is a lot like visual arts for children - neither important nor excellent.
Not so, she said.
"If you aren't doing it right, children will be as blunt as it's possible to be," Thomas said. "Adults will do the polite applause while they're going, 'This is the worst thing I've ever seen in my life.' Kids? They'll get up and leave. This class and this show [are] about telling a story that is so good and so engaging that the kids won't even think about getting up and leaving."
Pinocchio is performed by nine players who don't just play the roles of the classic story - such as Geppetto, Pinocchio and the Fairy - but also perform the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte - the trickster, the villain and others.
The performers wear handcrafted leather masks adorned to suggest the character who wears them. Geppetto's mask is brown, textured with a white feather for a mustache, and the fairy wears a fanciful pinkish leather mask with pastel dots decorating it. Pinocchio, as expected, wears a long nose.
Thomas said the company will introduce the children to the masks before performing, just to keep from startling any young patrons.
Cassie Henderson, a senior who plays the title role, said the ensemble has already tested the young audience.
"I work at a preschool, and we came to my preschool to do the show," Henderson said. "Cristin is right. Kids won't fall for anything. When I came on in costume, they yelled, 'That's not Pinocchio! That's Miss Cassie.'"
Patten said they noticed other things, too.
"Yeah, they were also saying things like 'That's not a boy, that's a girl!' Oh, yeah, and this one little boy went 'Stop, you're hurting my ears!' And we weren't doing anything remotely loud."
Pinocchio is meant to get young audiences involved. Arlecchino asks questions. To prepare the cast for the audiences, members of the directorial team shout out answers - some good-natured, and some challenging the actors to really make them believe the story.
Senior Bethany Dunn, who plays the roles of Columbina and the spirit, said when children are the audience, you have to find the truth of the story and the character in dialog and in movement.
"Truth comes from your actions on stage," she said. "You can't be truthful with your words and not be truthful with you actions, because kids won't put up with it."
TWU senior Drew Maggs, who plays Razullo and the fox, said the class and the short play have shaken him up as a performer.
"Being able to perform for children, it's making me think outside of the box. When you perform and you do it well, you'll see that more with kids," Maggs said. "I can't rely on the things I rely on when I'm performing for adults."
Maggs and the actors can't rely on their facial expressions because they are masked. Without a mask, an actor can say one thing with his body and contradict the same idea with his face.
Thomas said each performer has to tell the story with his or her body. The cast has a commedia specialist on the directing team, and she's stylizing the stage movements both with the characters and with the way children pick up on nonverbal cues in mind.
The story is simple and sweet. An old man wishes for a son, and doll wishes to be that son. With a little magic, some action and a lot of faith, a real father-son relationship is forged.
TWU graduate student Marshall Warren, who is the costumer and playing the role of Puchinella, said he'll apply what he's learned in Pinocchio to any show he's involved with.
"I personally believe that this is something that should be brought into all theater. In some theater, it's in an actor's contract that the performance can't be changed and the show can't be changed at all once they've worked on it. But I think there's a lot of value in theater that is this creative. I'd like to see theater that is this committed, this energetic, this mobile," Warren said. "I think there's a place for it."
The children's show opens today on campus and runs through next weekend.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .