Nevertheless, ArtReach annually reaches hundreds of thousands of kids in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The company employs four to six actors annually to perform in productions designed for kids from kindergarten through high school. Scripts are developed from classic literature, fairy tales, history and other works that are part of school curricula.
ArtReach was founded in the 1970s; in 1983 it was named the nation’s “best new children’s theater” by the Children’s Theatre Association of America. From 1996-2008, it was operated by Theatre IV, a similar company in Richmond, Va. In 2008, ArtReach merged with the local Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati.
Kelly Germain is the troupe’s artistic director. She first participated as an actor in 1994, then became a resident director the following year. She’s also a writer, responsible for many of the scripts that Children’s Theatre and ArtReach have produced.
Germain says she loves what she does: “I really enjoy writing and performing for young people because they’re such an honest audience. They don’t hold anything back. You can count on them to be honest and have a bigger reaction than your average adult audience. It becomes very interactive.”
Those reactions are often encouraged, Germain says, through audience participation. (“The kids are ready to jump in,” she says.) Germain was part of a local improv troupe, Carnivores in Action, back in the ’90s, and she says that improvisation is an important element in many of ArtReach’s productions.
“We invite the kids onstage to help us do something, but you can’t anticipate exactly what they’re going to do,” Germain says.
Part of ArtReach’s mission is also to help kids understand how to enjoy a performance. During the curtain speech before shows, for example, kids are instructed to clap when they like something. Each performance ends with a question-and-answer session.
“If a kid wants to know how some magic tricks were done, we tell them it’s the ‘magic of theater’ — watching something unfold that you can’t quite understand,” Germain says.
Kids often wonder which actors played which roles and are surprised to learn that only four to six performers might enact 30 roles.
“We let them see how an actor can change his jacket or shirt and be someone else,” Germain says. “Kids can suspend their disbelief pretty easily.”
There is also a curiosity and fascination with how ArtReach came to their particular school. It’s actually more exotic than going to a big venue (Children’s Theatre presents its productions at the 2,500-seat Taft Theatre in downtown Cincinnati), because they’re experiencing the magic of theater in a space they know.
“They are amazed,” Germain says, “that this room where they eat lunch everyday or where they have gym class can become a theater — a set, professional actors, beautiful props and costumes.”
When kids ask how it’s possible to make this transformation, Germain and her actors know they’ve done their job.
Since its work focuses on schools, ArtReach offers two “semesters” of performances, typically five or six shows. They’ve just begun to tour two works, The Satchel Paige Story and Ugly Duckling. The former, about the career of the colorful African-American baseball pitcher, is their “history” show for older kids. After many years in the Negro Leagues, Paige became the oldest Major League rookie in 1948 at the age of 42 for the Cleveland Indians. He kept a rocking chair in the dugout.
Ugly Duckling, which Germain wrote in 2005, reaches younger audiences.
“It’s a classic tale with our own take on it,” she says. “We’ve made it very timely, dealing with bullying.”
These shows will tour as far as Madison, Wis., this winter and spring. There will be a few opportunities to see them locally: Satchel Paige was onstage at the Taft Museum earlier in January; Ugly Duckling will be presented at UC’s Clermont College on Feb. 25 and at the Taft Museum on March 18.
“We get letters from kids telling about their favorite parts of the show,” Germain says. “An 8-year-old wrote he’d (had) a really bad day (but wrote) ‘I felt really good when I left.’ That’s what the arts are supposed to do — to touch you in a way that nothing else can.” ©