Entertaining Young Audiences, and Training Young Actors, is an Integral Part of the Miracle Theatre Formula
By Doreen Hemlock
Isabella Souza had never spoken to a “king.” So, the 10-year-old hesitated before approaching the actor dressed in regal attire in the lobby of the Miracle Theatre after the show “Puss in Boots.” She soon learned what actors do and rushed to tell her mom that “kings” often study for weeks to prepare.
As Actors’ Playhouse kicks off its new season, children play a key role in the group’s continuing success. Of the more than 150,000 people who visit the Coral Gables venue annually, some 60,000 come for children’s theater, many of them Miami-Dade school children on field trips. Income from shows for kids – sometimes staged twice a day during the holiday season – helps defray the higher costs of performances for older audiences, says the group’s executive director Barbara Stein.
The group also offers theater classes, summer camps, and other training for tots and teens. With The Children’s Trust, it’s been organizing an annual Miami-Dade youth talent show for the past decade. Some graduates have gone on to careers in the performing arts, even on Broadway and in Hollywood.
“We’re the only professional children’s theater company in Miami-Dade offering a year-round schedule of shows and training for youth,” Stein says proudly from her eclectic office, filled with mementos like set drawings from “The King and I” and the gold-lined garment from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Adds Stein: “That has helped us grow and develop, and now generations of families are coming to the theater together.”
A Mission to Develop Future Audiences
Stein and her team started reaching out to children in the summer of 1988, when their theater group launched in a strip mall in suburban Kendall. The fledgling arts company included among its early members Earl Maulding, a performer with a master’s in fine arts and experience working in children’s theater and writing plays for kids. Eager to build audiences longterm, the company decided to also stage plays for kids, convinced, as Maulding puts it, that “the future of live theater is young people.”
Those early offerings took off “like crazy,” attracting more families than anyone expected, Maulding recalls. He found himself thinking: “Ooh-aah, I have to keep doing this.”
More than 30 years later, Maulding continues to lead children’s theater programs at Actors’ Playhouse, now based on Miracle Mile and operating with a $4 million annual budget. He writes adaptations of musicals for young audiences and often introduces them, priming the seated crowds by asking them to repeat after him: “Ha, ha, ha… ha, ha, ha.” “Of course, they love that,” says Maulding, with a smile.
His efforts extend beyond the stage. To help teachers who are bringing classes to what may be their first musical, his team creates Enrichment Guides, offering information on the story, author and history of the show, plus related games. In recent years, they’ve also teamed up with schools to offer special “sensory friendly” performances for kids with autism, reducing loud noises and blinking lights that can disturb, and streaming shows live into the lobby for those who may need to leave suddenly.
During holiday season, Miami-Dade schools send busloads of students on weekdays to the group’s 600-seat, Mainstage theater, often twice daily for performances at 10 a.m. and noon. Student tickets typically run $10 each (half the price of the Saturday performances).
To develop future artists, Maulding’s team also manages classes in acting, film, and musical theater for hundreds of students yearly, with scholarships offered in some cases. That includes the Repertory Company for youth ages 10-18, which stages shows; members are often accepted by Miami-Dade’s prestigious New World School of the Arts. Recently, his team has been coordinating internships in lighting, directing, and other technical fields for students at Miami Arts Studio 6-12 @ Zelda Glazer, a magnet program in west Dade.
The training programs teach more than art, say Stein and Maulding. Students also learn teamwork, discipline, punctuality, and other basics needed for success in any field. “We teach children confidence, self-worth, and critical thinking skills which they can take with them into everything life brings,” says Stein.
Starting a New Season, With One Bilingual Show
For the 2019-2020 season, Actors’ Playhouse is presenting four musicals adapted for children ages 5 to 12: “Puss in Boots” through Nov. 1, “A Christmas Carol, The Musical,” during the holiday season, “The Wizard of Oz” in late winter and spring, and “Disney’s Aladdin Dual Language Edition” next summer. The “Aladdin” adaptation features some actors speaking in Spanish and others in English. The bilingual play, says Maulding, aims to draw Spanish-speakers and, like the “sensory friendly” shows for youth with autism, brings together diverse groups of children.
Maulding adapted two of the works and concedes the task can be harder than writing for adults, “because you can’t trick them. If you entertain them first, get them laughing and have a very clear story, then you can sneak in some moral lessons and ideas,” he says. “And if there’s a conflict introduced, I like to give them answers and examples of ways to deal with it, in an entertaining way.”
When directing, he recognizes children are as demanding an audience as adults. “I never think, ‘Oh, it’s just for kids.’ We have the same standards for any performance.”
Maulding still thrills at the way young audiences can engage with theater. “There’s nothing better than seeing 600 children staring rapt at the stage,” he says. For her part, 10-year-old Souza looks forward to enjoying a new performance and maybe meeting another “king” – or perhaps a “princess.”