Pirate Elves!

Beowulf Alley hopes to expose children to theater with their new Active Imagination program

This time of year is all about the kids. I suppose it's because the Christmas thing is focused on a baby being born to bring hope to the woeful world, so by extension, all children represent hope—and thus should be given great gobs of gifts.

But it's hard to keep all of this in mind at times when our little dear ones, hopped up on anticipation and sugar, become unbearable. Maybe those of us who are supposed to be in charge should try to find a way to channel all of that energy into an unusual, creative and totally entertaining activity.

Beowulf Alley Theatre Company has just the thing: The Active Imagination Theatre program, a recent addition to the theater's many efforts, is offering a chance for young ones to experience a challenging, unique, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiment.

It's improvisational theater for kids. And not just for kids, but by kids.

John Vornholt, the mastermind behind this program, gathered a group of six experienced actors—ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s—to work together for several weeks to develop "the bones," or the informal structure, for what will happen onstage.

"We talk and brainstorm, and we improvise as well," Vornholt explains.

Using their own playful interactions and exchange of ideas—thinking waaaaay outside the box is encouraged—they decided the basics of the story that the kids will help create. Children are recruited from the audience and shepherded by the adult cast to help flesh out the play.

"This is a very unusual way to work with kids," Vornholt says. "They may have had a chance to participate in improv by being plugged into very short skits, but this is really a full story. One (member) of our troupe calls it 'long form improvisation.' The kids really have the time to get into the creation of the experience."

For this Active Imagination episode, the story is titled Elves Gone Bad. Santa shuts down his workshop when the reindeer go on strike; besides, children seem to be asking only for video games, and not toys that need to be manufactured. The elves find an old pirate ship stuck in the ice, dislodge the vessel and take it over. Then, after a brief stint in pirate school, the pirate/elves become a motley crew—and actually end up saving Christmas.

"This is such great fun," declares Vornholt, who says that the event is geared toward 4-to-8-year-olds.

"Learning the pirate alphabet is pretty easy. It mostly consists of 'iiii' and 'rrrrr,'" he laughs. "You never know what's going to happen, except that you get a totally different show every time. All of us have to be really tuned in to who is participating, what they might be able to contribute and what the chemistry is. It's always surprising. Kids really do come up with the darnedest things."

Jon Benda, a member of the troupe, says that for him, "interactive theater" is important, because it transforms children from viewers into participants. "They actually determine the action of the show. It's like the stage is the sandbox, and we are the buckets and shovels. But it's the kids who actually do the playing."

He also enjoys the troupe's process to develop ideas. "You really have to just put everything out there, even if it's ridiculous, and you know you can't really use it—it's that very thing that just might spark a wonderful idea for something you can use. And you might not have ever discovered it otherwise."

Beth Dell, managing director of Beowulf Alley, is hopeful that the community will discover this program. "Kids need this. Their imaginations need more formal opportunities to be developed. Arts programs have all but disappeared from the schools, which is such a mistake. That's one of the reasons programs like Active Imagination are so important. Arts are as crucial to the whole education of a child as math and reading and science. Really, their importance cannot be overestimated. And when kids do get to participate, it can be the beginning of a lifetime appreciation of what the arts do for us."

Hmmm. Dell seems quite passionate about this.

"Theater is my passion," she says. "I know the power it has, so making sure kids are exposed to theater is part of that. Tests show that kids who have regular exposure to the arts increase their overall academic performance by 20 percent. It appalls me—and I just don't understand it—that kids are leaving school without ever having seen a play. Just recently, I invited a young man to see a show here, and afterward, he picked me up and spun me around and said, 'I didn't know this kind of thing happens!'"

So as we let this child-centric season remind us that the future rests with these small, sticky-faced folks, we should try our best to give them all they need to fulfill the job for which they were born: keeping the world a hopeful place. Or at least taking care of us in our old age.

Besides, the Active Imagination experience promises fun for us grown-ups as well. In spite of our best Scrooge-like efforts, the season can also remind us that there's a small, sticky-faced kid in us all.