Children at play

As family theater goes, the production of "Christmas Without Presents" at the Civic Theatre in Loch Haven Park, a play based on the classic "Little Women," was fairly sophisticated. For one thing, the play was unusually self-aware in the sense that the cast of five female characters -- Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth and their mother, Marmee -- encouraged children in the audience to be part of the production. For another, a mini-opera that served as the play's finale gave the over-stimulated youth in the crowd a chance to see how 19th century teenagers entertained themselves.

The schoolchildren, bused from as far away as Osceola County, seemed to enjoy the spectacle. Most looked awestruck when one of the actresses performed within arm's reach in the Civic's intimate, 120-seat Tupperware Theater, better known as the Civic's second stage.

The actresses, meanwhile, were elated to be the first to return to the Civic, whose financial future, even a year ago, was very much in doubt. The 29-year-old building "had kind of a dormant feeling at first," says Becky Fisher, who played Meg. "Being able to dispel that by bringing laughter back into the place was a great experience. We are very proud of our show."

Children's theater is nothing new to the Civic, which used to dedicate one of its theaters, the 300-seat Dench Center, exclusively to professional kid shows.

But with the opening of "Christmas Without Presents," a new round of artistic debate begins about what the Civic will -- and should be.

The Civic has a long, rich history of community theater dating to the mid 1920s. But in 1994, the company -- that performed in the massive theater building several hundred yards south of the Orlando Museum of Art on Mills Avenue at Princeton Street -- was turned over to former executive director John Loesser. Against the wishes of longtime Civic volunteers, Loesser decided to pay all Civic actors, to produce expensive traveling shows and to dismantle the troupe's fund-raising arm. All of which forced the Civic's budget into the red for the first time ever.

After Loesser left in 1997, the Civic limped along with a board that was so careless and apathetic that it hired former insurance executive Marti Miller without checking her background. Miller, who had been accused of misappropriating $200,000 of her clients' money, helped the Civic run up more than $350,000 in debts. (The Florida Department of Insurance dropped its case against Miller for lack of merit.) By that time, the Civic's board of directors was populated with members who "did not necessarily love the Civic or love theater," says a former board member, who asked to remain anonymous. "They were on the board because it looked good on their resumes. All they wanted to do was get through board meetings. They didn't pay a lot of attention."

In July 2000, after a children's performance of "Oklahoma," the Civic's three theaters were closed to the public.

It came back to life when attorney Pat Christiansen, former chair of the Orlando Science Center, formed the Orlando Repertory Theatre and raised $4 million from private donors. The group began much-needed repairs which won't be complete until 2005.

Part of the reason the Orlando Repertory Theatre isn't expected to backslide into debt the way the old Civic did is that the University of Central Florida agreed two years ago to partner with the new board of directors. The agreement obligates the university financially for an undetermined sum, probably in the neighborhood of the $250,000, the amount the college contributes to the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival. In return, the Repertory will offer internships and provide stage time to the UCF theater program, specifically for students specializing in children's theater.

UCF will offer the children's program beginning next fall, expanding the entire theater department's prestige and enrollment from 260 students to well over 300. "We want to model our program on the Yale School of Drama and its repertory theater," says Kathryn Seidel, dean of UCF's College of Arts and Sciences who is serving as Orlando Repertory's interim director. "Yale has the best drama program in the country. Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep graduated from there. If we can get anywhere close to that, we'd be doing great."

The Orlando Repertory Theatre's next production will also be oriented toward youth. "Come Back, Amelia Bedelia" is based on the popular children's books written by Peggy Parish. The play will run through February on the Civic's second stage.

By that time the Repertory's new executive director, Rob Ziegler of the Des Moines Playhouse, and new artistic director, Sybil St. Claire of the All Children's Theatre in Gainesville, will have scheduled a full slate of theater at the Civic. "We've just started to talk about what the literature might be," says Ziegler, an associate director in Des Moines, whose first day of work is Jan. 6.

St. Claire and Ziegler were selected mainly because they've both led financially successful children's theaters. "That was in the job description when both jobs were posted," says Mary Ann Dean, the Civic's former executive director who now holds the same title with the UCF Orlando Shakespeare Festival. Dean was one of five members on the selection committee that chose Ziegler and St. Claire. "Experience in children's theater was the overriding criteria for the search committee."

With the Repertory Theater's affiliation with UCF and hiring of St. Claire, a new round of debate has begun. Some in Orlando's creative community are discouraged that the direction of the new Civic will be almost exclusively geared toward children's theater. "I feel the current vision is too narrow in scope," says Fisher, the "Christmas Without Presents" actress known as much for her vocal gifts as her ability to handle roles in experimental and mainstream theater. "I understand the need to operate in the black, and I'm very much aware of the economic realities of the theater business. But I feel we're really selling ourselves short if we're only doing family-oriented theater."

Nobody doubts that children's theater is important. Learning stagecraft not only builds self-esteem and confidence, it creates the next generation of theatergoers. "I'm so pleased the Civic continues to have such a strong children's program," says Michael McLane, who directed several shows at the Civic. "I think that's very important. But it's only part of the equation. All kinds of theater are important."

Some in Orlando's creative community are discouraged that the Orlando Repertory chose St. Claire over David Lee, an Orlando native who received an undergraduate acting degree from the University of Miami and a Master's in directing from Yale. Lee not only acted in or directed dozens of adult-themed shows at the Civic -- How I Learned to Drive, Me and Jezebel, Love, Valor and Compassion" and "Normal Heart" -- he also directed some of its more successful children's productions, such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol and "Wind in the Willows."

Lee proposed bringing cutting-edge adult theater to Orlando. He pitched "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?," the Tony Award-winning work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee, who also penned the classic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." He also proposed more traditional plays such as Ovid's "Metamorphoses and A Christmas Carol."

Lee was shocked to discover that members of the selection committee didn't know "The Goat," in which the protagonist admits to bestiality. He was also put off because one board member took umbrage at the fact that Lee had dressed in drag for the lead role in a successful run of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Parliament House this fall. Says Lee: "It was a totally vanilla, conservative selection committee."

According to Lee, St. Claire pitched much more traditional fare -- "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Clue, the Musical," based on the popular board game. Such works might benefit UCF students enrolled in the children's theater program. But there are hundreds of theater performers, directors and set designers who'd like the repertory company to at least rent space to independent producers so those with more sophisticated tastes will have access to the Civic's main and second stages.

Will they be able to? Ziegler, the new director, says he's amenable. "If I have anything to say about it -- and I do -- we will accommodate them," he says. "I don't see us cutting out anyone. We want the Orlando Repertory Theatre to be an integral part of the theater community. We will never stand alone. I really hope we can be open to the community even more so than the old Civic used to be."


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