A variety of local venues and theatre organizations are helping kids discover the magical world of live theatre in Miami-Dade.
Published: September 4, 2018
By: Greg Carannante
A loveable ogre named Shrek. A lion who would be king. A beauty named Belle.
These are just some of the many characters that will greet youngsters and their families when the house lights go down on Miami-Dade stages this season. At a variety of venues and local organizations, kids can discover or rediscover the make-believe worlds of the theater, through plays, dance or music — and usually all three in the same show!
“We have parents that come with babies in arms to the productions. And I think that’s the best age to start,” says Earl Maulding, director of theater for young audiences at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.
“We primarily do musicals, so there’s the musical aspect that will entertain them and keep them involved. And we make the shows very visual through extensive costumes, scenery and lighting — and even the style of the show. I always tell my actors, you’re not over-acting because kids think more in pictures.”
What’s key to a good introductory theater experience for children?
“It certainly helps if it’s a book or a story that they’ve heard before,” says Maulding, who created the children’s program at Actors’ Playhouse after starting off as a song-and-dance man during the theater’s infancy. “If you read to your children a lot, they’re going to be much more open to their imagination being alive — which is a great connection to theater. Bring them, and then it’s like a book come to life for them.”
From local acting and children’s theater companies to national touring productions, Miami-Dade stages are alive with characters already familiar to children in hopes of sparking a romance with the theater. For instance, this upcoming season will spotlight beloved characters in productions such as Shrek the Musical, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Other shows aim to expose children to new and exciting experiences.
“For example,” Maulding says, “we’ve done some original pieces that were bilingual to reach out to our Miami-Dade audience. We’ve done some pieces like a mini-Starlight Express, with the actors on rollerblades and BMX bikes. So it was a visual spectacle but underneath that there were some really important messages. ‘Get ’em in the door,’ but underneath it all are some very smart ways to reach the kids to give them some things to think about… and hopefully some solutions.”
Actors’ Playhouse also stages shows that go easier on the eyes and ears of children with special needs. For those with sensory processing and autism spectrum disorders, “All Kids Included” Sensory-Friendly Performances are special adaptations of their children’s shows that provide accommodations like modifications to sound and lighting levels, noise-canceling headsets and a quiet room.
While Actors’ Playhouse presents professional theater for children performed primarily by adults, mostly young thespians own the spotlight at two other children’s theater mainstays: Area Stage Company and Miami Children’s Theater, both in Coral Gables. Each presents shows this season that appeal both to younger children, like the former’s The Lion King Experience!, and to older kids, such as the latter’s Chicago (High School Edition).
The county’s grand venue, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, is home to family friendly shows with the production pizazz of national touring companies. And Sept. 8 is the day to be first in line to buy individual tickets to the majority of this season’s shows — minus the handling fees — as the center holds its ARTSLAUNCH2018.
Miami’s biggest annual celebration and kickoff of the arts season, the free special theatrical event for families features mini-performances, a community arts village of more than 100 arts and cultural organizations, and the chance to intimately explore the center’s performance space. Also several times a year, the center presents its free Family Fest series, with enchanting stage performances, hands-on activities, classes and workshops.
Aventura Arts & Cultural Center’s Smart Stage Matinee and Family Fun series regularly stage shows for young theater-goers, while Fantasy Theatre Factory takes a more mobile approach to showtime. As a state touring company, it travels to over 10 Florida counties each season presenting versatile performances to family audiences and schools — in addition to productions and workshops at its home stage at Sandrell Rivers Theater in Miami. It also produces its own Theatre Field-Trip Program throughout South Florida.
Putting the spotlight on young thespians
As well as staging productions that will put kids in their seats, several theater companies offer plenty of opportunities designed to get them out of those seats and up onstage themselves.
Training in the theatrical arts goes hand-in-hand with amateur productions at Miami Children’s Theater, which offers classes, camps and productions that emphasize onstage experience. In addition to housing a professional theatre company, Area Stage has a professional-level conservatory with classes, workshops and performance opportunities for young, aspiring performers. It also offers the Inclusion Theatre Project, a theatre program for people with special needs.
Actor’s Playhouse, which offers a year-round conservatory for children starting at age 5, also hosts two events each year for young theater-goers and theater-hopefuls: the hands-on Kids Fest in February, and a free countywide talent competition, Young Talent Big Dreams. in March and April. The contest gives performers from ages 8 to 17 a shot at cash prizes, performance opportunities and master classes.
“So we’re bringing the kids in and exciting them not only about watching,” Maulding says. “But then they’re saying, ‘Mom, Dad, I would like to do that.’ ”