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Children's Theatre in Minneapolis

'WE'VE never lost by giving children the chance to deal with significant ideas," says Jon Cranney, artistic director of the Children's Theatre Company. Considering how much pap is foisted on children in TV shows and many children's books these days, Mr. Cranney's remark hoists a standard to salute and follow.The Children's Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis brings the best of children's literature to the stage each year in eight elaborate, magnificently designed and acted productions. While children perform with the company, the cast is made up largely of professional actors. It is one of the most influential, carefully managed, and successful arts institutions of its kind. As it embarks on its '91-'92 season, the artistic principles guiding it deserve recognition. "Children need to experience, they need to know, to inquire, to take those journeys art takes you on, and be brought back having learned something of value," says Cranney. The core of CTC's repertoire consists of great works of children's literature adapted to the stage by playwrights and designers (all are under strict orders to be true to the ideas and illustrations of the original). Original works also are regularly commissioned, and occasionally even "classics" of dramatic literature find their way to the stage. Last season saw Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and next will bring Thorton Wilder's "Our Town.We do have to pay our bills," Cranney says. "We earn 75 percent of our income through ticket sales, which is unusual. So very often we do need to do titles which will attract new people especially." The process of selection of plays for the season is based on the ideas contained in the work. This season's first production, Madeleine L'Engle's famous sci-fi novel, "A Wrinkle in Time," is about possibilities, says its director Gary Gisselman. "We get so many scripts that are just irrelevant," he adds. "Kids have real concerns. The message of "Wrinkle in Time" is that you have within you the resources to deal with life.... It teaches kids they have to assume responsibility for their lives, that what yo u do matters, that actions have consequences. It's good to have mentors, but you don't need magic fairies to touch you and change you. There is a search going on, a hero's journey, a life journey in "Wrinkle." Meg is trying to find an answer. And I think it's good that it shows there is some thread that ties life together." Cranney once engaged an award-winning playwright to sift through the very simple Raggedy Ann and Andy stories. Constance Congdon found buried in the tales the problem of sibling rivalry, and that issue, Cranney says, gave the needed life that became a compelling production. Children see how to handle a new sibling, and parents see that children may need help adjusting to a new arrival. "Our pieces all exist on several levels," Cranney explains. In a dramatic version of the first nine chapters of "Jane Eyre," a grim vision of 19th-century child abuse, he showed how Jane was able to rise above her sorry plight - that anyone can better him- or herself, no matter what the conditions. "Robin Hood" was given a "neo-Brechtian" presentation style that actually described the emergence of common law. It was a big hit. "Little Women" turned out to be rather talky, Cranney says, and he feared the young audience would be bored and misbehave. But they were riveted. "I was totally surprised. It's amazing how they listen if the behavior on stage is truly honest and human." Internationally praised for its ability to recreate the very look of the storybooks it dramatizes, CTC employs 90 professionals and 300 part-time employees. CTC carries a fantastic 29,000 subscribers a year and plays to over 400,000 annually in Minneapolis and St. Paul and on tour. It has attracted the efforts of modern stars like author and illustrator Tomie dePaola, science-fiction writer and designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, Broadway playwright Kevin Kling, artist Red Grooms, playwright Mark Strand, and author-playwright Len Jenkin. Dr. Seuss's stories also have been adapted to the stage by CTC, which owns exclusive performance rights. Authors Madeleine L'Engle, Bernard Waber, and Beverly Cleary have given their blessings to CTC productions of their work. MANY of the children who perform in the CTC's productions alongside the professional actors also attend afternoon theater classes at CTC, though auditions are open. When they travel with the company, tutors and chaperons are supplied. Education in the arts cuts more ways than one at CTC. Like many other arts organizations, CTC is dedicated to multiculturalism - not as a social problem, but as something to celebrate, says Cranney. "On the Wings of the Hummingbird: Tales from Trinidad" takes the myths of that region as well as its performance arts - calypso, reggae, and carnival - and intertwines them. CTC is dedicated to showing children they can deal with ideas, that they can understand Shakespeare, or the complex science ideas in Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time, primarily in the context of family learning. Almost as important to Cranney and colleagues is the atmosphere they create, nurturing the art audience of the future. "We do not have a culture that supports the arts even halfway as much as sports," Cranney laments. "We want to create an atmosphere that shows how performance art can be a significant part of your life. "So we do all kinds of performing arts, not just drama. What is the best way to tell a story? Is it dance? We've done shows that were almost all ballet. At some point we'll do a full-fledged opera. If you start attending performances at age six or seven and you stay 'til you're 12, you will have seen all kinds of theatrical styles and techniques. You will already be a sophisticated theatergoer.... Inspire them and teach them in the arts and we will all have better audiences." "The work [at CTC] has to be substantive," adds Gisselman, "so people will learn at a young age that you go to the theater because something important happens there and you will come out the richer for it." The season's offerings include "A Wrinkle in Time,On the Wings of the Humingbird: Tales of Trinidad,The Canterville Ghost,Ramona Quimby,Our Town,Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Match Girl," and "Merry Christmas, Strega Nona."

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