It’s just before a matinee at the Julia Morgan Center and the theater is flooded with families, lots of kids. And the kids are being given a speech lesson. But it’s taught by pirates—eyepatches, hooks and headscarves, literally out of a storybook, mingling with the audience, saying “Aarrr!” and “Avast!” over and over, followed by a roar of youthful voices. The exclamations appear, projected on the pirate ship’s sail.
Later on, in Active Arts for Young Audiences’ show, How I Became a Pirate, when the crew of corsairs teaches the new recruit the lingo, breaking into song, they ask the audience to join in—and the happy din, “talking in pirate,” is even greater for the pre-show practice.
How I Became a Pirate is adapted from the children’s book, written by Melinda Long and David Shannon, in which a young boy joins the pirates, learning about swabbing the deck, weathering a storm at sea—but also teaches his teachers how to play soccer and where to bury the treasure—in his backyard—when he gets homesick.
“Our focus is to adapt great children’s books to the stage,” said Nina Meehan of Active Arts. “We tend to do musicals, and choose books in the reading range of four to 12-year-olds. One of our basic jobs in theater is to tell a good story, a story our audiences are familiar with, or one we encourage them to read and relive portions of the show they saw as they read.”
Active Arts endeavors to reach a wider audience than just the young readers their staged stories are aimed at. “We want people of all ages to feel welcome in our theater,” Meehan said. The lineup of the program for the 2008-9 season shows that.
“How I Became a Pirate is a fairly new book,” Meehan explained, “and was recipient of an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book Award. It was adapted originally by a theater in Chicago. The kids know it—their moms and dads don’t. At our booth at the Solano Stroll, kids would come up and say, ‘I read that in school’—and parents would say, ‘Let’s check it out of the library and read it together tonight.’”
“With our next show, in late January and February,” Meehan went on, “it’s the reverse. Moms and dads know Pippi Longstocking, but not always the kids. We plan to have an exhibit about author Astrid Lindgren’s other Pippi books and about the books she wrote about a little boy named Emile.”
The final show of the season, in April and early May, is something everyone knows: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, in a new version, Wonderland, created by Jeff Raz, famous for his participation in Cirque du Soleil, and the Clown Conservatory of the San Francisco Circus Center, where Raz teaches, and produced by Active Arts.
“It’s exciting, a perfect synergy between two groups,” Meehan said. “We thought of commissioning an adaptation for our third show, then heard they were developing this. They have the show, we have the audience. It’s a great way for our audience to get to know the Circus Center. They have a contortionist, a juggler, a magician, acrobats ... all to tell the Alice story in circus fashion. We get to explore where theater and circus meet—the excitement and magic of the circus, the story-telling and creativity of the theater.”
Active Arts was founded in 2004 and has been staging shows at the Julia Morgan for four years. This season, they’re adding two weekends in San Ramon as well. Their season subscription list has grown from 30 to 400.
Meehan relates how a mother stopped her in the lobby to say how seeing a past show, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst, affected her son. “She told me that for a year after, whenever her son had a bad day—and kids do have bad days!—she’d ask, ‘What happened to Alex?’ and take out the book—and it would make the day better.”