Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 2004

Okay, let’s get the terminology straight first. There’s a difference between children’s theater and theater for children. In discussing their new theatrical venture, Lamb’s Players Theatre producing artistic director Robert Smyth and associate artist James Saba are assiduous about making the distinction.

“In theater for children,” explains Saba, a highly regarded local actor who served as artistic director of San Diego Junior Theatre in the early 1990s, ” kids perform for kids and families. The focus is on the kids’ education and their experience with the work. In children’s theater, adults perform for kids.”

Lamb’s Players Theatre has a lot of experience with kids, and Saba has a lot of experience with Lamb’s. He first performed there at age 18 (1988-89), and he’s directed or produced work for children in several cities. Lamb’s has had a long-term commitment to young people, with their 18 year-old touring educational outreach program and mainstage productions that appeal to youth (e.g., Smyth’s 1997 adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe).

“But,” says Smyth, “we’ve always wanted to focus more specifically on children’s theater. We care about kids as a present and a future audience. And we can do really exciting productions in our National City space. Working in the round lends itself to imagination and intimacy.”

There’s certainly a precedent for this specialization.   For example, the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, which was founded in 1965, won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2003.

“I always wanted to do something like that in San Diego,” says Saba. “Rather than touring, with kids in their cafetorium, their own comfort zone, this is a way to create a whole environment for children. They come in, they sit in the dark, and they share a powerful experience.”

The new family-oriented program, launching this month as a two-play series, will be called “The Play House.”

“We’re hoping to draw in parents and grandparents,” Smyth says. “And we hope they’ll start coming to our resident theater [in Coronado].

“The hallmark of the series will be imagination,” Smyth continues. “It’s the driving force that gives theater power, in contrast to everything else in the culture that just serves up realism to kids.”

The series kicks off with the U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s literary adventure, The Boy Who Fell into a Book. Ayckbourn, best known for his very adult, rather acerbic puzzler-plays, has written nearly a dozen works for children. The Lamb’s premiere is a fast-paced fantasy adventure with a magical journey (Alice in Wonderland-style). It was written by Ayckbourn in 1998 to celebrate England’s National Year of Reading.

In the play, Kevin is totally immersed in his favorite book, but it’s time for bed. Suddenly, he finds himself in the thick of the action, alongside his hero, the streetwise investigator Rockfist Slim, protagonist of the Green Shark mystery novel series. To escape the Green Shark, and to find a way home, they have to travel through all the books on Kevin’s bookshelf. So, they make a headlong dash through ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Kidnapped,’ a book of Ghost Stories and even ‘Chess for Beginners.’

The play is probably best enjoyed by audiences age 10-12 and up. “In this series,” says Smyth, “we want to do plays that work for kids and will also appeal to adults.”

The second offering will also be directed by Saba, who recently moved back to New York and will commute for the series. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse was adapted for the stage by playwright and NPR commentator Kevin Kling, from the popular children’s books by Kevin Henkes. “He’s done a terrific job of creating a goofy, offbeat play that definitely has an [adult] edge” says Saba.

It’s a humorous parable, intended for a somewhat younger audience (age 5 and up), that touches on issues of disappointment, anger, and sadness. Lilly is a mouse, and her mouse-chums are modeled on human prototypes: The Malcontent, the Artist, the Wimp, the One Who Overcomes.

” Lilly is a great role model for girls,” says Saba. ” She’s brave, unexpurgated and tough. She saves the wimps from the bullies.”

The Lamb’s folks plan a curtain speech about theater etiquette before each show and a ‘talkback’ afterward.

“We want kids to learn about sitting and paying attention,” says Smyth. “The plays will only be 90 minutes long, but they’ll feel like a full evening of theater. This series is an exploration. If it works, we plan to do a 4-5 play sequence. The exciting thing for me is that this allows us to show kids that theater can tell any story and go any place with simple elements. And when it’s theater-in-the-round, they become part of a community, looking across at the rest of the audience.”

“Right,” Saba chimes in. “You catch someone’s eye who’s being moved by the play and that becomes theater in itself. I think it helps kids rediscover engagement, not being a passive receiver. Children’s theater is my crusade. It’s where I always wanted to be.”

[The Boy Who Fell into a Book runs Feb. 26-Mar. 21. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse plays April 29-May 23 at the Lamb’s Playhouse on Plaza; 619-437-0600,]

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.