CHICAGO: Like most theatres for young audiences, Emerald City Theatre posts age recommendations for its shows. But, also as at most theatres for young audiences, parents looking for live entertainment for their kids don’t always pay close attention to such advice, bringing along toddlers and even infants to shows designed for kindergarten-age kids and older. The result, notes producing artistic director Ernie Nolan, is the less-than-ideal spectacle of “parents shushing their kids in the middle of The Wizard of Oz.” Why not, he and his colleagues began to think, follow the lead of many European “baby theatre” companies and start “making theatre for kids who are being brought to our shows anyway”?
Theatre for under-fives has been a slowly gathering trend on American stages (see AT, Sept. ‘10), but when Emerald City opened its newly renovated Little Theatre in the Lakeview neighborhood last May, it gave the U.S. its first theatre venue devoted exclusively to the teething set. This month the Little Theatre opens its first show, The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, a “play with us” event penned by Nolan and intended for audiences “0–4.” It follows the parameters of most successful theatre for the very young: short (just 45 minutes), and is set in a studio space with gentle sound and lighting effects and mildly interactive elements.
Shushing parents aside, Nolan traces his eureka! moment to a trip he made to Denmark some years ago on an Ann Shaw Fellowship program, where he saw the baby-theatre piece Rain by the troupe Madam Bach. “It was about overcoming fears of water. The lead actress was spraying her face with a bottle—and a little one, not yet walking, reached out and grabbed for the droplets. That made me a believer.”
Money from a MacArthur Foundation/Driehaus grant and the NEA, as well as a dedicated fundraising campaign and a sponsorship from the children’s furniture retailer the Land of Nod, which co-designed the interior theatre space, helped pay for the conversion and programming of the venue. Underwriting is crucial for toddler theatre in part because of its necessarily small audiences, which complicates what Nolan calls the “butt math”—i.e., how many people can be seated. With little ones often occupying parents’ laps, or very little floor space on their own, Emerald City opts to cap audiences at 50, roughly half of which are kids.
Emerald City—which runs shows at two other Chicago-area theatres, the Apollo Theater and the Broadway Playhouse—will also use the Little Theatre for theatre classes and class performances. This may not be exactly what Maurice Browne had in mind when he founded the original Little Theatre of Chicago, but we think he’d approve nonetheless.