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Salt Lake Acting Company on Engaging its Youngest Audiences

Posted By Salt Lake County ZAP
May 20, 2016

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Salt Lake Acting Company has a reputation for taking big, bold, theatrical risks. In the 2009-2010 season, we took a different kind of risk – children’s theatre. At that time, interim executive director Nancy Borgenicht saw a need in our community for professional theatre for children. We produced GO, DOG. GO! based on the beloved book by P.D. Eastman and seven years later, our annual children’s play is one of the highlights of each season. 

a year with frog and toad

Selecting the Plays

There is a whole world of imaginative, engaging children’s theatre out there, and with just one slot to fill each year, we are presented with some tough choices when it comes to selecting which children’s plays to produce. One vital component of our children’s programming is that the play be based on a book. This allows SLAC – through study guides, community outreach, and relationships with educators – to connect literacy with theatre, filling an ever-widening gap in public arts education.

Our children’s plays up to this point have included:

  • GO, DOG. GO! by Allison Gregory and Steven Dietz, based on the book by P.D. Eastman
  • IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Jody Davidson, based on the book by Laura Joffe Numeroff
  • HOW I BECAME A PIRATE by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, based on the book by Melinda Long
  • CLICK CLACK MOO: COWS THAT TYPE by James E. Grote and George Howe, based on the book by Doreen Cronin
  • THE CAT IN THE HAT by Katie Mitchell, based on the book by Dr. Seuss
  • A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD by Willie and Robert Reale, based on the books by Arnold Lobel
  • ART DOG by John Olive and Susan Ennis, based on the book by Thacher Hurd
  • (Coming up in December 2016) DIARY OF A WORM, A SPIDER, AND A FLY by Joan Cushing, based on the books by Doreen Cronin

art dog at utah museum of contemporary art

Title-1 Arts Education Program

One of SLAC’s flagship programs was born out of our children’s productions – the Title-1 Arts Education Program. In conjunction with each children’s play, we offer eight free performances to Title-1 elementary schools, which are designated as schools with high numbers or percentages of children from low-income families. These are often students who have never seen a play before, whose minds and imaginations are opened up by seeing the books they’ve read in their classrooms come to life on stage.

The plays we choose are based on books geared toward kindergarten through second grade students. We learned that these are the grades that are typically least served in terms of field trip opportunities, and we have found them to be some of our most excited, engaged, and appreciative audiences. 

Our children’s plays run during the month of December each year, and we start taking Title-1 performance reservations in August. We work with the Salt Lake School District to help spread the word and we take class reservations on a first come, first served basis. Each year, we welcome approximately 1,500 students through this program.

Once a class or school has made a reservation, our Director of Marketing and Engagement, Erika Ahlin, is in contact with the teachers, sending a prepared study guide (which is created by SLAC staff with the help of an education specialist) and making sure they have everything they need before seeing the play.

click clack moo chatting with students 

Each Title-1 performance begins with members of our staff talking to the students about the experience of live theatre. We discuss what makes theatre different from movies or television – The action is taking place right in front of you! Just like you can see and hear the actors, they can see and hear you! This is a special experience that you and the actors share! We talk about their job as audience members and encourage them to listen, laugh, and applaud. We talk about the book the play is based on and things to watch for on stage. We teach them a piece of choreography from the play. And after the play is over, the actors stay on stage for a Q&A session, giving students the opportunity to ask their burning questions, like, “How did the eyes in the painting move?” and “Where did you get all your costumes?” and “How old are you?” The talkbacks are not only educational for the students, but also always entertaining for SLAC staff and actors.

go dog go

Community Engagement

Our children’s plays also give us the opportunity to engage with segments of our community that we might not otherwise reach. Each year, we work with local libraries, bookshops, schools, and community organizations to arrange special performances and readings. Our actors read the book and perform sections of the play in these free performances. In the past, our community performances have included The King’s English Bookshop, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Discovery Gateway, St. Olaf’s, and many Salt Lake City and County Libraries.

community performance of how I became a pirate

For the past few years, SLAC has hosted an event for Voices of Utah Children – a local organization whose work focuses on making Utah a place where all children thrive. Their staff and supporters gather at SLAC to see a sneak-peek of our children’s play and meet the cast and creative team.

We’ve also partnered with the Visual Art Institute of Utah, Bad Dog Arts, and Washington Elementary to adorn our lobby and Green Room Gallery with student artwork relating to the play.

 kings english event if you give a mouse a cookie

Inspiring the Next Generation of Theatre-Goers

My favorite thing about producing children’s theatre is knowing that so many of our young audiences are experiencing this magic for the first time. There is nothing like live theatre, and it is incredibly special and a huge honor to be part of introducing it to someone, especially a child. Children’s minds are ripe for possibility and suspension of disbelief; they are, in many ways, the ideal theatre audience. You know you’re doing it right when they are enthralled, and you know you’ve done something wrong when they are bored. And they are not shy about letting you know, in either case. Our goal is always to engage and inspire; to give them something they’ll remember, so that theatre becomes an ongoing part of their lives. 

the cat in the hat

SLAC’s commitment to young audiences and their understanding and appreciation of live theatre is hugely important and continually inspiring. I am so proud to play a part. I hope you and the young people in your life will join us this December for DIARY OF A WORM, A SPIDER, AND A FLY!

-Shannon Musgrave

Shannon Musgrave is Salt Lake Acting Company’s Associate Artistic Director and had the pleasure of performing in SLAC’s productions of GO, DOG. GO! and HOW I BECAME A PIRATE.