At a children’s theater festival in Seattle in the late ’90s, Theatre of Youth director Meg Quinn had an experience that’s lingered in her mind ever since.
A Swedish theater troupe, in town to perform for very young children, put on a simple production about a man and his dog. The show had almost no dialogue, relying instead on sounds, images and one-on-one interactions with the audience members. Parents were told to sit far behind their children in the small, black-box theater so that they could focus completely on the experience without their mother or father to distract them.
“The kids were treated with such respect, and there was such an understanding of the story and the way they would perceive it,” Quinn said. “The emotion of it, and the empathy for the characters, it always stayed with me. And I thought, there’s an audience here, they just need something that’s going to relate to them.”
On Saturday, Theatre of Youth will open “Balloonacy,” a one-man show featuring Buffalo actor Kurt Guba and the first play in its new Theatre for the Very Young initiative. It’s a project that grew out of Quinn’s experience in Seattle and her longtime desire to extend the company’s impact to new audience members. The arrival of Quinn’s first grandchild, Evelyn, last November didn’t hurt either.
“I look at Evelyn and she just reaches with total abandon: Let me touch that, let me taste it, let me grab it. And I think that there is a way to process that through theater,” Quinn said. Over the past year, with her granddaughter and other children in mind, Quinn started researching and visiting theater programs for young children throughout the United States.
She settled on “Balloonacy” and “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” slated for June, as the first two productions for Theatre of Youth’s new program. Later on, Quinn said, she hopes to develop original material along with the company’s creative team.
But the challenges of creating theater for young children are many, so the company is taking it slow.
“So often people will come here and the 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds will tag along. It’s a big theater and sometimes they’re catching things, but it’s not quite meant for them. So, to create other work that is specifically for that age group is very challenging,” Quinn said. “Language is not the most important element, because they don’t have all of the words. So you’re really appealing more on the emotional level. They process sound and texture and rhythm, faces, relationships, all of those kinds of elements that are part of theater, but now you put the stronger focus on them.”
When most theater directors talk about developing new audiences, they’re generally talking about people in their teens and into their 20s, when theater isn’t a priority or simply costs too much. But for Quinn and an increasing number of directors around the country, the next project is to give Nickelodeon a run for its money.
“In some of the research, kids do more learning in the first three years of life than they will at any other time. They’re just like sponges,” Quinn said. “We always talk about children ‘when they get older,’ ‘when they become something.’ The point is they already are something, you know?”
When: Saturday through Sept. 21
Where: Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville
Info: 884-4400, www.theatreofyouth.org