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When play is work and work is play

"The Lion King. Jr." on stage at Duluth Playhouse. (Duluth News Tribune file photo)

This March the Duluth Playhouse Children's Theater ran Disney's "The Lion King Jr." The 16 performances sold out before the show even opened.

"That may have to do more with the reputation of 'The Lion King," humbly admitted Kate Horvath, the play's director, "than the fact that we are awesome."

The Duluth Children's Theater has become an incredibly successful, sustaining legacy. The fact that tickets sold so quickly is a testament to the quality Kate Horvath, Children's Theater and education program director, has introduced under the modest guise of Children's Theater.

Children's theater gets a bad rap. Traditionally, children's theater consisted of simple plays where kids dress up as a tree or princess and have one inane line. It's cute if it's your kid on stage, but mostly it's just tortuous. But the Duluth Playhouse has transformed the reputation of children's theater to one of artistic excellence and execution.

I was backstage during several performances of "Lion King Jr.," and I was astounded by the beauty of choreography backstage. On the stage the kids had been directed and guided and knew their steps. They had worked intensely with choreographers and a singing instructor. A professor from the University of Minnesota Duluth came to teach the kids about African culture; an expert in African dance visited to teach African style movement and Darin Bergsven from Harbor City International School gave a demonstration of African drumming. The costumes were so elaborate that the young actors had to strengthen their muscles in order to endure the costumes without needing occupational therapy.

But the choreography backstage was equally impressive. Girls with three levels of birds on their heads moved laterally between backstage props while avoiding zebras with 3-foot protruding torsos. Lions and hyenas were sidestepping, ducking and tilting perfectly in time so they could get on and off the stage with efficiency. One 8-foot-tall giraffe on hand and foot stilts moved elegantly between skittering gazelles. Behind the curtain the chorus was singing while synchronizing hand motions. All of this without talking or audience appreciation.

As a classroom teacher and a parent volunteer at the production, I observed with a certain curiosity. How was it these 50 kids ages 12 to 18 were accomplishing this without an adult standing over them? They were cooperating joyfully. These kids were working!

Although there was no adult standing over them, all of the young actors had been nurtured by an adult who directs from the midst of them. Small in stature but large in presence, Kate Horvath has developed a theater program in which children are taught how to behave while being given the freedom to express. She establishes high expectations and the kids respond with a "Yes, Kate!" Her leadership gives the students skills and direction. And here really great work looks like really great play.

Research on the value of the arts in the lives of children is undisputably powerful. Children who attend theater events show increased intelligence, a better understanding of reading and a better grasp of social studies because they get to see the concepts played out.

Children who are involved in theater learn that they are free to think and feel; they are taught how to use their minds to be subtle and flexible while lengthening their attention span. Acting is an unparalleled activity for learning empathy, building confidence and learning how to cooperate.

Young people who want to get involved in theater also have to develop tenacity. The Duluth Children's Theater program has become so popular that trying to earn a spot in a production is quite competitive. For the "Lion King Jr." production, 120 auditioned for the 50 cast member spots. Although auditioning is intimidating, it is fun and a positive experience whatever the outcome.

In 2007 the Children's Theatre program served approximately 200 children. This last year the program served 700 students in the tuition based programs and 1,000 total including shows and outreach like Stage Play, the program for student with autism. The children's theater serves a patron base of approximately 25,000 people annually.

Kate Horvath is probably right about the reputation of the Lion King, Jr., but the reputation she's built into the Duluth Children's Theater program has a lot of us wishing we could back and be kids again. Since we can't, we'll just pay to admire from a velvet seat.

S.E. Livingston

Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota and lives in Duluth.

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