The "magic of theater" is working wonders for the new Chicago Children’s Theatre. Co-founder and Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell is used to seeing that magic happen on the stage.
She’s worked in the past at magical places such as Old Town School of Folk Music and Lookingglass Theatre.
But now, she says, she sees the magic is happening not just on stage but off as well.
Russell still feels like she’s living a dream as her company prepares to mount its inaugural production, "A Year With Frog and Toad," at its temporary home, the Goodman Theatre.
Two years ago, Russell remembers reading about successful adaptations of the children’s book Go Dog Go being produced by children’s theaters in Seattle and Minneapolis. She was looking for something new to excite and engage not only her but the mind and imagination of her young daughter, Shiri, 9.
"As a working artist, I spent a lot of time away from home doing plays which weren’t age-appropriate for her. On the few occasions she did see my work, it blew her mind," says Russell.
"Chicago has great children’s theaters working on a smaller scale. What I envisioned was grand-scale, Broadway-style children’s productions without the Broadway prices."
Aimed at children ages 5 and up, Chicago Children’s Theatre will showcase not only professional actors and directors, but also will boast spectacular costumes, sets and full-scale lighting and sound designs—perks not readily available to smaller theaters.
Russell’s dream was supported by powerful and passionate friends, including her co-founder, Todd Leland, managing director of Goldman, Sachs & Co. and former board chair at Lookingglass Theatre Company; Mick Leavitt, a Tony Award-winning producer; and Gigi Pritzker Pucker, a philanthropist who also chairs the Chicago Children’s Museum board.
Together this group approached artists and investors, most of whom have small children themselves. They gathered a 15-member board of directors, who raised funds through foundations and private donations.
With $30,000 in advance ticket sales before the first show opens, Russell credits the company’s board as well as the artistic council—eight prestigious Chicago artists, including Ralph Covert, a popular local children’s musician—with helping make her dream a reality.
"The only way we were able to launch a company on this scale in such a short time is because of the group of people involved," she says.
The group’s artistic council includes representatives from esteemed companies such as Goodman and Steppenwolf as well as award-winning artists such as Geoffrey M. Curley, who serves as associate artistic director and is the scenic designer for "A Year With Frog and Toad."
The company is already growing. A year ago, Russell was Chicago Children’s Theatre’s only full-time employee. Now there are six, plus numerous artists for each production. The new executive director is Claude Binder, formerly Steppenwolf’s general manager.
"I think our vision of children’s theater speaks to these artists. Our commitment to produce at this level allows these artists to do their best work, something they can’t do in a storefront setting," says Russell.
A family-friendly lineup
All this star power gives the Chicago Children’s Theatre a leg up when it comes to raising money and attracting attention. But a theater’s reputation rides on its performances. So Russell knew she had to choose shows carefully.
"We really wanted something that is as entertaining for adults as it is for children since that’s one of our goals in creating this company," she says. "‘Frog and Toad’ is just an excellent piece of theater.
"I love the relationship these two characters have, how they talk to each other and love each other. They’re very different but learn how to solve their problems and come through the other end still great friends."
To direct, Russell hired Henry Godinez, who shares her desire to create high-quality, family-friendly theater. "I met Henry Godinez at a dinner party a few years ago and we ended up spending most of the evening talking about our daughters," says Russell. That conversation, and his critically acclaimed talent as a director, convinced Russell he would be a perfect choice. Godinez, a resident artistic associate with the Goodman Theatre, accepted.
"A lot of what I direct in Chicago is just not appropriate for my daughters, ages 6 and 9. It is a thrill to not only work with such professionals, but then to be able to share my work with my entire family," he says.
Godinez sees the opening of Chicago Children’s Theatre as something different for families.
"Chicago certainly doesn’t lack for children’s entertainment given the fine work of companies like Lifeline, Emerald City and DePaul University’s Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences. However, because of much larger budgets, CCT can offer world-class quality and the highest standards of professionalism from actors through designers," Godinez says.
In the case of "A Year With Frog and Toad," the show starts the moment families enter the Goodman’s lobby. Sound effects and lobby displays will immerse audiences in the world of the play. "It will be a little like walking into Rainforest Cafe," Godinez says.
More is better
Paige Kauffman, executive director of Chicago Kids Company, believes another children’s theater is good for everyone. "Most of the good children’s companies out there are each trying to do something different. We focus on engaging very young children through productions of fairy tales like the upcoming ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Goldilocks.’ CCT is looking to do something wholly different."
No one seems to fear the competition for audiences.
Godinez points out, "I am a big believer in developing new audiences. Attracting families is the key. That’s achieved wherever families can find that magic, whether it’s in their own neighborhoods or on a large stage like Goodman’s."
"The more the merrier when it comes to opening children’s eyes to live theater."
Chicago Children’s Theatre has already set its sights on the future as Russell maps out its first season, 2006-2007.
The company plans to produce in three separate Chicago venues. While no plans have been finalized, Russell is considering invitations from Steppenwolf, the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park and a return to the Goodman.
As tempting as it might be to stay at one well-known location, Russell understands that Chicago Children’s Theatre needs to carve out its own identity, not be known as Goodman’s Children’s Theatre.
Russell also values the challenges each new space will bring. "It’s just another way to notch up the artistic creativity."
In the meantime, no one pinch her, because she’s living her dream.
Chicago Children’s Theatre debut show this month is "A Year With Frog and Toad." The Tony Award-nominated adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s children’s stories follows the adventures of the two best amphibian friends.Director Henry Godinez believes children as young as 3 can appreciate how the cycle of friendship mirrors the cycle of the seasons over a year. "Just like in life, Frog and Toad experience fear, joy and friction. The play really explores a true deep friendship," he says. A former children’s theater performer, Godinez does not underestimate the kids in the audience. "I prefer to think of it as speaking to the children in all of us. We’re trusting the play and the music to bring energy, imagination and joy to audience members of all ages." Performances are Jan. 20 to March 5 in the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Performances run 10 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $17-$38; tickets for the 3:30 p.m. Sunday matinee are two-for-one. The show will run about two hours with one intermission. For more information, call the Goodman Theatre box office, (312) 443-3800, or visit www.goodman-theatre.org
Alena Murguia, who lives in Berwyn, is the mother of three and works part time for Chicago Parent.