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From the Green Room: Children’s Theater

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Pittsburgh's Gemini Theater opened its production of Beauty and the Beast on the first Saturday of the new decade. Established in 1996, Gemini is an interactive children's theater whose mission is to cultivate creativity, imagination, and originality through the performing arts. Children in the audience often come costumed as princesses, pirates, or animal friends, or whatever strikes their fancies, or the fancies of their parents. They are invited to play on the black box stage as they wait for the performance to begin. During the performances, they are encouraged to come to the stage to dance with the actors and join in some of the songs. Whenever possible, the audience is encouraged to take an active part in the theatrical experience and join in the fun.

A number of children ranging in age from about eight to the middle teens are usually cast in each of the theater's productions alongside the adult performers. Beauty and the Beast has five children cast as servants transformed into flowers at Beast's castle, and an eighth grader as one of Belle's sisters. Acting classes are offered at the theater for children on all levels, from introductory courses for those as young as four and five, to advanced workshops for teens as old as seventeen. Summer camp programs are also available. Older children are also encouraged to learn about the technical aspects of theater, and students work sound and lights for each production.

The current production of Beauty and the Beast is an adaptation by Dennis Palko from the Madame Le Prince de Beaumont original. Lani Cataldi composed the original music and wrote the lyrics. Palko and Cataldi are the founders of the theater.

Gemini's version of the classic tale should not be confused with either the Disney cartoon or its Broadway manifestation. There are no servants turning into objects. There is no evil in the form of the handsome Gaston. There are enchanted flowers and selfish sisters. There is an indulgent father come upon bad times, who innocently makes the mistake of picking the wrong flower as a gift for his beloved daughter. Above all there is the discovery that true beauty comes from within and that surfaces may well be deceiving.

Interactive children's theater can be a lot of fun for the actor, but it can also be a test of the actor's ability to adapt to the occasional disruption of the best-laid plans. Young children encouraged to join in with the actors at specific points in the play may not always understand that they are not encouraged to join in at any other times. In a small black box theater, children are seated right up at the edge of the stage. It is easy to reach out to the actors. It is easy to get up and investigate the scenery, check out a prop, examine a costume. It is easy to talk to the characters: to warn them of danger, to let them know where someone is hiding, to help them escape from pursuers.

Often the characters will speak directly to the audience. They will ask for their help. "Which way did she go?" the evil witch will ask the children, as she searches for the escaping princess. Some will innocently send her in the right direction; the more astute will send her off the wrong way. Sometimes a child may get up and pull her in one direction or another. One little girl followed an evil fairy off stage, admonishing her loudly that she was going the wrong way. A little boy might well decide to help Snow White get away from the Queen's nasty henchman. Actors must be prepared for anything, because anything that can happen probably will.

Certainly there will be children frightened by the Beast. Certainly there will be children warning Belle's father (Jeremy in this version) not to pick the rose at the Beast's castle. There might be those who would like a close-up view of the flower children blocked in the downstage corners of the stage. There might be those who would like to share in the popcorn one of Belle's sisters is pecking away at. The unexpected has to be one of the expected joys of interactive children's theater, and the actor unprepared to deal with it had best stay with the adults.

After the performance, the cast forms a receiving line in the lobby and greets the audience as they depart. They sign autographs in character in the children's programs, while parents take pictures of them posing with the children. More often than not it is the Princesses—Aurora, Ariel, and of course Belle—who command the most attention, and who would have it any different?

The current production stars Joey Galvin as Beast and Gemini founder Lani Cataldi as Belle. Bridget Carey directs.

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