"It looks like a magic land," whispered a wide-eyed nine-year-old as she stepped through the doors of the Polka Children's Theater, Britain's innovative theatrical venture.
Opened officially last November by the Queen Mother, Polka becomes this country's first theater complex designed especially for children. "It's a sort of children's art center," says director Richard Gill.
Against a backdrop of psychedelic color schemes, Polka serves up a dizzying array of theatrical fare, all geared to the young. Twice daily performances of high quality puppet shows are staged by Polka's 20-man resident company in the handsome 300-seat theater.
Craft workshops run around the clock, and nonstop classes offer youngsters a chance to learn puppetmaking, mime, dance, maskmaking, and acting.
There is a clubroom for after-school chess, an adventure room for budding dance or mine artists, workshops for creating or repairing puppets, and a garden playground chock-a-block with colorful climbing equipment. Drama, puppet, and chess clubs are soon to be introduced. The whole complex is a bustling hive of creative activity and, according to Mr. Gill, "We're only just starting."
Director Gill, who not only conceived the idea of Polka but brought it to fruition, has definite ideas about a need for such a project.
"Today's children are being denied a childhood," he said in an interview, moments before stepping on stage. "They're being brought up on a diet of television and spectator sports and surrounded by sordid buildings and ugly cars. They are being robbed of the beauty and magic that should be part of their childhood."
"Our success as a touring company for 13 years and the success of this theater among children, teachers, and parents tell us that they all feel this terrible lack of warmth in their civilization. So they flock to a place like this without really knowing why."
Polka's bright yellow building squats on the main street of Wimbledon, a suburb of London. The theater provides a permanent home for the resident company while a second group tours the country, bringing children's theater to the far-flung corners to England.
Most of the company's 27 productions combine puppetry and acting. Productions include the popular "Circus Parade" about two rival circuses traveling around Italy. A current favorite, "Wooden Stars," written and directed by Mr. Gill, traces the history of puppetry from the caveman's shadow puppets up to the Muppets.
Production tend to draw heavily on the past and on material from other countries. "We try to draw on all the best in world culture," Mr. Gill pointed out. "In stories, in music and, above all, in visual presentation. We think children need desperately to see things that are well designed and well made. It's something they just don't see these days."
Once a run-down church hall, the Polka Theater has been cleverly transformed into a fantasy world by colorful murals, illuminated displays, and ceiling paintings. Hot-air balloons hide the lighting fixtures, and fluffy clouds float across the ceilings.
Inside the entrance, you step into a 19th-century fairground, dominated by a yellow carousel with striped awnings. A constantly changing display of antique puppets drawn from the company's own collection lines the walls.
Upstairs, the theme switches to "Arabian Nights" with a large bold sign "Open Sesame" above the theater entrance.
The Polka Pantry, a cafe selling only wholesome snacks, is a railway carriage. You hang your coat on a huge green 30-foot serpent dotted with pegs.
Richard Gill, mastermind behind the Polka Theater, is actor, writer, magician , and puppeteer as well. He grew up in a puppet-loving family, won the title, "Champion Boy Magician" at 15, and at 18 joined a circus. He later studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama, acted with a repertory company, and started writing plays.
In 1967 he teamed up with scenic designer Elizabeth Waghorn (now his wife) and created the Polka Children's Theater Company, a touring company combining puppetry, acting, and magic. They played to packed houses around the country for 13 years before founding their resident theater last November.
Richard Gill points to his success both in the past and now in Wimbledon as direct evidence that he is providing something vital that youngsters need and want.
"To learn to enjoy yourself in creative ways is what educators should be teaching but arent't," he said. "So that's what we can do."
"We're striking a blow for civilization, if you will. Instead of offering children something made of concrete and done cheaply and sloppily, we're offering them something of extremely high quality that is genuinely beautiful, appealing, and magical. That should be a part of every person's childhood, so we're trying to provide it."