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Theaters making a play for children

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Oct. 14--"I think family entertainment will be the next big thing in Chicago," says Criss Henderson. "That's where a lot of attention is going to go now."

The executive director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre -- who hopes to build a new theater on Navy Pier to house an expanded slate of family programming -- is right about that.

Look at all the evidence this fall -- from "Winnie the Pooh" in Rosemont to "Wicked" in the Loop, with a newly invigorated Emerald City Theatre Co. at the Apollo in Lincoln Park right in the middle.

And guess what's all new at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

First production: Athol Fugard's South African classic "'Master Harold'... and the Boys," opening Saturday morning.

Ensemble member (and well-known movie actor) K. Todd Freeman is doing the directing of the classic drama about a young white boy's ennobling relationship with the two older black men who shield him from his own family. A powerful indictment of apartheid and a moving coming-of-age story, "Master Harold" is Fugard's most notable play.

Sure, Steppenwolf for Young Adults basically is a renaming of the old "Arts Exchange" program (a term that managed to be both dated and apropos of nothing). But it also reflects a new awareness at Steppenwolf -- a theater not exactly known for its kiddie fare -- that family shows are the wave of the future.

"These productions are very much Steppenwolf productions," says Hallie Gordon, Steppenwolf's director of arts exchange (get that woman a title change!). "We get ensemble members and the same kind of Equity actors as the adult shows. We wanted a name that reflected that."

Gordon's program has an auspicious history (it has sometimes seemed like the Arts Exchange shows were more reliably high-quality than anything else at Steppenwolf). But she also has the numbers to back herself up.

"We found that like 63 percent of audience for 'The Bluest Eye' [a hit Arts Exchange show last season] were new to Steppenwolf," Gordon says. "That's remarkable."

True. But not uncommon. There's an increasing awareness that family shows often do much, much better than shows aimed strictly at adults.

"Wicked" wouldn't make its routine $1.2 million a week without the teenagers in the crowd. And over at the Drury Lane Water Tower, they've just added a terrific little daytime production of "Schoolhouse Rock Live!" Based on the appreciative crowd there last week, it looks like a keeper.

Why is this the case? Even adults who are not themselves interested in the theater often see the importance of some artistic exposure when it comes to their kids. And given all the troubling and commercial fare for kids on television, many people are willing to make an effort for their kids that some adult theaters wish they were more willing to make for themselves.

There's also the matter of scheduling. People might be working late on a weeknight -- or getting up early the next morning. But on Saturday morning, they're often looking for something to do. Given how well daytime performances seem to do, some adult theaters might do well to adopt the same schedule.

At the Steppenwolf, they see "young adults" as people between 12 and 25 years old. But there's also a lot of sudden action in town when it comes to fare for those much younger than that.

On Oct. 26, the Rosemont Theatre (which hasn't exactly been drowning in shows these last couple of years) is hosting a weeklong run of "Winnie the Pooh," aimed directly at a preschool audience. In the past, Feld Entertainment (the producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) has licensed arena ice shows with Disney content -- such as "Finding Nemo," which played here a few months ago.

This "Pooh" isn't an ice show but a nationally touring proscenium attraction using actors dressed in the famous Pooh-and-friends costumes (which are, of course, owned by Disney) and performing the catalog of Pooh-themed songs. Shows aimed at slightly older kids have toured on this level before (such as "Blues Clues Live"), but this kind of attention to the under-5 set certainly is something new. Bonnie Pear, a spokeswoman for the show, said she expects "for most of the audience, this will be their first experience in the theater."

Emerald City has been around for awhile--but its shows have been ratcheted up in scale and visibility. (Read Kerry Reid's review of the current production, "Stellaluna," in "On the Fringe.")

Even some very unconventional places are getting into the family act. Chicago Dramatists is best known as a workshop for emerging playwrights and a place to see premieres of challenging works by Chicago scribes. But why shouldn't some of those works be for children?

Hence, "Bring the Kids!" -- a Saturday morning showcase of new works for children. The first one is slated for Chicago Dramatists on Nov. 12. According to artistic director Russ Tutterow, theater-loving kiddos will get to experience works in progress and influence their development.

It's all a long way, perhaps, from the edgy, in-your-adult-face image of Chicago theater. But many of the people who followed such troupes in the 1980s and 1990s have kids now. One thing's for sure: there has never been a better time to be a kid in this town and love the theater.


'Disney Live! Winnie the Pooh'

Oct. 26-30 at Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd. Contact 847-671-5100 or Ticketmaster; $15-45.

What it's about: The tubby little cubby all stuffed with love has various adventures with his cynical pal, Eyore, et al.

Who will like it: Strictly for under-5s and Christopher Robin wannabes. No Pooh cynics allowed.

Be aware: You might find yourself in serious debt at the concession stand.

Highlight: No need to go all the way to Orlando to meet Piglet.

'"Master Harold" ... and the Boys'

Through Oct. 30 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Contact 312-335-1650 or; $12.

What it's about: A coming of age story wherein a young boy learns the inhumanity of apartheid.

Who will like it: Not usually presented as a kids' show. Too intense for under-10s.

Be aware: These are serious themes that might need a family post-show discussion.

Highlight: A kids' eye view of a troubled adult world.

'Stellaluna and other Tales'

Through Nov. 5 by Emerald City Theatre at Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave. Contact 773-935-6100 or; $9-12.

What it's about: Animal antics based on Janell Cannon's series of books.

Who will like it: 3-to-9-year-olds are the ideal target but good for the whole family.

Be aware: A python stalks the house.

Highlight: Animal masks and puppets from L. Nicholas Saubers.


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