Theatre for the Young in Years
- By gentleguide
- On Sun 31 Dec 2017
We all started our theatre passion somewhere, and it’s wonderful when it can start with the very young. The Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre at the Des Moines Playhouse presents the first new production of 2018 with Elephant & Piggie: We Are in a Play! The children’s book characters are brought to life with music and dance (and even some audience interaction). It’s a great way for the very young (and their loved ones) to come and experience a show.
Best of Friends
For those of us without children of a certain age, director Katy Merriman brings us up to speed on the things many youngsters already know. “Elephant and Piggie are two characters from a series of books by Mo Willems. They are best friends whose stories are born of situations like Piggie asking Elephant to try some slop, or Piggie deciding that she is going to fly one day.”
“Elephant tends to be the worrier and can be a little dramatic, and Piggie is a yes-woman who is always excited to try new things. She levels Elephant out.”
The books are definitely designed for wee ones, and the characters are colorful and larger than life. Katy continues, “The books are written for a very young audience - the pages are mostly blank except for Elephant, Piggie, and one or two word bubbles. Sentences are very basic and good for new readers. Mo Willems doesn’t write them in a babyish way, though. He is brilliant at finding simply one-liners that are hilarious.”
Of course, bringing simple books and stories to the theatre stage is a translation that might be difficult, but fortunately this presentation makes a relatively seamless transition, by taking advantage of the different medium of presentation.
Merriman explains, “The stage version strings together a few stories from the books, and is mostly what might happen in a day in the lives of Elephant (played by Douglas Cochrane) and Piggie (played by Allyson Martens). They start out saying hello and get into a number of adventures before realizing toward the end of the show that they are in a play, and can ‘make people do stuff!’ There’s a lot of audience interaction, it is fast paced and funny for kids and parents, and I think young children and their chaperones will all enjoy themselves.”
Best of Performances
Part of that interaction is created through song and dance, which is where choreographer Maddie Ripperger comes in. A student at Drake with an emphasis on working with youngsters in theatre, she’s led a number of classes for kids through the Playhouse over the last few years, and also starred in the Kate Goldman production of Fancy Nancy early in 2017.
“I would say that my experiences working with you at the Playhouse have actually informed the classes I’ve taken at Drake just as much as the classes at Drake have informed the work I’ve done at the Playhouse, because I began pursuing education after doing an education internship at the Playhouse three summers ago. I’ve always been very fond of theatre for young audiences and beginning my career as a teaching artist has just made me love children’s theatre even more.”
Specifically concerning Elephant & Piggie, Maddie had to figure out what kinds of dance would work best, both for the all-adult cast and the (hopefully) receptive young audience. “Choreographing this show has been an exciting challenge because there is a lot of dance considering it is only an hour long. For the most part I was interested in flashy and exciting movement that would draw kids in, rather than super technical choreography.”
“However, there is actually one song in the show where the cast asks the audience to join in and do the moves with them. So for that one song in particular I wanted to make sure that the movement would be easy to imitate especially for our youngest audience members.”
During rehearsals, I was told to keep an eye out for the Squirelles, a group of fellow animals in the show who have a very 1960’s girl group feel to them, as excited viewers of all ages will discover when they go see Elephant & Piggie. There are references for all ages to be found.
Best of Learning
For both Maddie and Katy, a show like Elephant & Piggie, and even all the other programs that the Playhouse has for youth, are about more than just putting on a show. They’re about developing life skills and attitudes that are useful in all areas, not just on a stage.
“I am excited to direct in the Kate Goldman,” says Katy. “The first show I ever did when I moved to Des Moines 5 or so years ago (I can’t remember?) was the Little House Christmas show. I remember how impressed I was that a community theatre had a series for young audiences to view and also participate in. It’s such a good way to introduce young people to theatre both as patrons and as actors.”
And Katy will soon have a new person to introduce to the world of theatre, as she is expecting her first child very soon. So the entire range of youth theatre options is definitely going to be part of her growing son’s world.
“I can’t wait to bring my son to Friday Fun Day, and to the Kate Goldman shows as he grows old enough to attend. I look forward to the future education programming that the Playhouse has to offer. It’s certainly the way I’d want my kid spending his or her free time because it’s also play time! And learning how to be respectful or organized and how to express yourself-time.”
Maddie adds, “I think theatre is so important for young kids, even if they don’t grow up to have a life on stage or behind the scenes. The arts teach us so much about compassion and team work. Sharing the magic of theatre with kids whether that be on stage, or in the classroom, has been incredibly fulfilling. If your child is interested in theatre there is definitely a place for them at the Playhouse in the classroom, the audience, and even on stage!”
Starting this weekend, you and your young ones can be part of the excitement with Elephant & Piggie: We Are in a Play! at the Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre in the Des Moines Playhouse. Tickets are available at the Playhouse box office, by calling 515-277-6261, or by visiting the Des Moines Playhouse website.
Publicity photos for Elephant & Piggie by Steve Gibbons, courtesy of the Des Moines Playhouse.