June 12, 2003


Faced with fiscal pains, playhouse wonders how long show can go on

At the Antioch Theater last Saturday, things were abuzz. On the main stage, a group of young people refined slinky dance moves with musicians Tucki Bailey, Greg Dewey and Ras Shaggai.

Outside in the Antioch Amphitheater, another group of children twirled and swayed as they learned a new dance from director and choreographer John Fleming.

On the Antioch Commons, several children talked character development with playwright Tony Dallas. (“I see the mouse as a natty guy. He wears a bowtie. He’d spend his last cash to go to the opera,” Dallas said.)

All in all, about 40 Yellow Springs children were immersed in the world of theater, guided by professional artists. In other words, the YS Kids Playhouse was gearing up for its newest original production.

That production, The Monkey King, written by Dallas, will be presented Thursday– Sunday, June 19–22, and Wednesday–Saturday, June 24–28, 7:30 p.m., at Antioch’s Miles Goodman Amphitheater.

But because of financial difficulties caused by the economy, Kids Playhouse organizers are asking, how long can the show go on?

The organization’s 10th original musical features a wide array of creative efforts. Directed by Fleming, the play features original music by jazz musician Bailey, reggae musician Ras Shaggai, and rock drummer Dewey. Visual designers Migiwa Orimo and Pierre Nagley created sets and props, and costume designer Lisa Hunt designed costumes. Rani Crowe serves as stage manager. The play’s all-youth cast consists of 41 local and area actors, with eight young people working on tech.

Based on the epic fable Journey to the West, The Monkey King tells the story of “a provocative trickster monkey whose reckless ambition to acquire immortality results in many antics and adventures,” according to organizers.

On Saturday, hints of the play’s mythical world lay strewn around the theater — bright-colored flying monkeys, fearsome dragons, giant pink lotus petals and swinging green lanterns on poles.

“It’s going to be a visually splendid show,” Fleming said.

When asked why they were spending one of their first Saturdays this summer cooped up in a dark theater, the kids echoed a single answer — they were having a really good time.

“I play a monkey,” said 10-year-old Adam Zaremsky, who is participating in his fourth YSKP production. “It’s fun to walk like a monkey.”

“I like the mythology part,” said 10-year-old R.C. Worrell, in his second year with YSKP. “The play has heavenly people with cool powers.”

“If I didn’t do the Kids Playhouse, I think my summer would be wasted,” said 15-year-old Rebecca Guest, a veteran actor in her eighth Playhouse production.

Over the nine years since Fleming began the Kids Playhouse, the plays have taken audience members to a variety of imaginary worlds, including the Middle East of The Arabian Nights, ancient Rome in The Oracle’s Mouth and Cajun Louisiana in last year’s Gaston Boudreaux. This month spectators will travel to China, with dances based on Tai Chi movements and costumes inspired by the Peking Opera. In July, the playhouse will take its audience to New York City with A Cricket in Times Square.

“I think it’s a cool play,” said Rachel Levine of Fairborn. “It’s a play for everybody. Adults can understand that you can’t be greedy and have everything and kids can enjoy watching monkeys run around.”

The Monkey King “gives a thorough immersion into the world of myths, and what myths teach us about ourselves,” said Diane Davis, managing director of the Kids Playhouse.

Davis began her association with the Kids Playhouse at its beginning, when her son, Evan, took part in five years’ worth of plays. Through that association, she became a believer in the positive effects theater can have on children.

“He gained a lot of self-confidence,” Davis said of her son. “He surprised himself with what he could do.”

For Samantha Williams, a Kids Playhouse parent and board member, the benefits of theater for kids are far-reaching.

“At every stage of the participation process, the YS Kids Playhouse gives our children opportunities to meet challenges and to shine,” she said, citing the steps of auditioning, committing to the production, learning a part, problem-solving and performing.

Dave Greco, also a YSKP board member, pinned his daughter’s poised presentation in this year’s science fair to her experience in the playhouse.

“She felt so comfortable and poised in front of people, and I think she got a lot of that from the theater,” he said. “A lot of the skills they learn are widely applied.”

And their opportunity to work with professional artists, such as Bailey, helps children grow, Greco believes.

“It’s an exposure to high quality art that they wouldn’t get otherwise,” he said, adding, “They love Tucki to death.”

While she’s excited about The Monkey King, this year Davis, along with Fleming, carries an awareness that tempers her enthusiasm. While it’s always been a challenge to raise enough money to keep the playhouse afloat, this year’s economic recession is hitting the organization hard. In its ninth year, Kids Playhouse is struggling to finish its first decade.

“Our goal is to make it to next year,” Fleming said. “Right now we don’t look beyond that.”

The playhouse has three streams of financial support, according to Davis, and raises about a third of its annual $50,000 budget from ticket sales, a third from grants and a third from individual donations during its spring fundraising campaign.

While Fleming and Davis emphasize that villagers have been generous through the years, donations this year have been down significantly. Coupled with foundations cutting back on grant monies, the situation is troubling, Davis said.

“Foundation donations have cut back, individuals have cut back, and of course government funding has cut back,” Davis said. “The whole vast array of the sources we rely on to keep us going is very skinny right now.”

The YS Kids Playhouse has received significant financial help from the Yellow Springs Foundation in the past, said Davis, including a $5,000 matching grant for establishing an endowment several years ago, which the group matched. However, the foundation has a policy of funding specific projects rather than ongoing operating expenses, Davis said.

YSKP has also received past grants from the YSI Foundation and The Antioch Company.

Arts organizations in neighboring counties, such as Springfield or Dayton, can rely on regular municipal or county funding such as that provided by Culture Works in Dayton, said Fleming, but Greene County organizations have no such sustained support. And the local organizers don’t want to adopt the policy that some children’s arts organizations have requiring that youngsters pay to be in a play.

“We don’t want to charge kids to participate,” Davis said. “That goes against our beliefs about kids and art.”

This year, at Kids Playhouse, the show will go on. Local children will sing and dance and inhabit the worlds of Chinese mythical creatures and a New York subway station. But playhouse organizers wonder how long they can keep offering local children the opportunities to put on productions.

“I love acting,” said Polo Chaikwang, in his fifth year at Kids Playhouse. “It’s a good story. I like the music and costumes. I like it all.”

—Diane Chiddister