Sunday, February 15, 2004

Children's Theatre courts suburbanites

Children's Theatre

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Children's Theatre Artistic Director Jack Louiso surrounds himself with characters from plays in the coming season: Spring Starr Pillow (left), Krista Katona Pille, Emily J. Stewart and Matt Joppru.
The Cincinnati Enquier/JOSEPH FUQUA II

If you live in Anderson Township and are what demographers call a "Prosperous Metro Mix," you probably shop at Home Depot, eat at T.G.I. Friday's and fast food Asian, drive a Honda, and have a pager.

If you live in West Chester Township and fit the "Kids & Cul-de-Sacs" profile, you shop online, visit Disney theme parks and use a debit card.

If you live in Mason and are stamped "White Picket Fence," you shop at Builder's Square, eat at Dairy Queen, go bowling and have caller I.D.

The common denominators are baby boomers with children (and even grandchildren).

And the Children's Theatre wants all of you.

With more than a year of research and help from marketing gurus, this season Children's Theatre management has identified its ideal audience - upscale suburban families - and set about giving them exactly what they want, which is what they already know and love, in a nice place with concerned and polite people making the entire process (from buying the ticket to finding your seat) easy and pleasant.

"The comfort zone is really important," says artistic director Jack Louiso. "They know what they're getting and they already like it."

The Children's Theatre has tapped into a national trend, and its new spin on marketing targeting the experience rather than a show's title or an organization's reputation has resulted in a 45 percent jump in subscriptions (to 2,500, matched only by Showboat Majestic among Cincinnati's smaller theater companies and far outstripping both Ensemble Theatre and Cincinnati Shakespeare.)

What: The Children's Theater 2004-05 season:

Oct. 15-17 - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Dec. 3-5 - Annie, Jr.* (*Not part of subscription series)

March 18-20 - Aesop's Fables

April 22-24 - James and the Giant Peach

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Taft Theatre, Fifth Street at Sycamore

Tickets: Subscriptions $42-$15 are on sale now. Single tickets: $18, $16 and $7 go on sale Sept. 1. 569-8080.

Auditions: Will be held by appointment only in August for the 2004-05 season. Watch for details.

That's right, says boomer subscriber Deborah Mayberry of West Chester Township. "Familiar titles," the elementary school guidance counselor says firmly. "I want to know the story line, know that it's going to be appropriate."

A subscriber for 10 years, knowing Children's Theatre's work first-hand still isn't enough for Mayberry, who likes to know the book or film or video before she leaves for the theater. "A few years ago they did The Secret Garden and I didn't know it. My daughter (Page) was in sixth grade and had the book; we read it together."

Scott Copeland, president of the United States Center for the International Association of Theater for Children and Young People isn't surprised that longtime subscribers still want material they can count on.

Booking the familiar has become a national trend, he says. "I'm not saying it's good."

There are no hard research numbers to explain why, but Copeland is willing to offer "my own guesses and impressions."

"The world is kind of nuts," observes Copeland. "These favorite shows are an opportunity to reaffirm our beliefs, it's something we already understand. You can see it and think, 'This is right, what I know and remember.' We can take some comfort from that."

"New experiences are fine," Mayberry says. "But by the very nature of children's theater, children have to get there with an adult. And the adult probably won't spend time or money to go if they don't know" (what they're getting before they get to the theater).

That kind of familiarity makes it "like revisiting my own childhood."

Mayberry gives a thumbs-up to taking a well-known work and doing different things with it, citing The Jungle Book, which Children's Theatre artistic director Jack Louiso interpreted largely through dance.

(The production will get a revival March 19-21 at the Taft Theater.)

Louiso is pragmatic. "Until we can get them hooked, we have to get them in the door," he says. Copeland echoes him.

So the 2004-05 season will be largely revivals of favorites from the past:

• The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (first performed in 1995) has music by Cincinnati bluegrass diva Katie Laur augmenting the tale of the Headless Horseman.

• Aesop's Fables (from 1997) is a charming comic approach to life lessons with giant puppets (including a bunch of grapes with names like Merlot and Chablis) created by Joe Kovacs.

• Annie, Jr. is a condensed version of the Broadway hit that will be a holiday special.

• The sole new entry in the lineup will be a local premiere of James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl's whimsical tale of an orphan who has adventures with insect friends and a handy (and enormous) piece of fruit.

Local songwriter Terry LaBolt will provide new songs for Peach and Aesop's.

Louiso has a whole list of new children's classics he's itching to get the rights to - "anything by Dr. Seuss, Eloise, Mary Poppins ... ."

Children's Theatre Managing Director Susie Louiso (they're a husband-wife team) longs to get rights to Faith Ringgold's new children's classic Tar Beach.

Copeland says that the current books parents are reading to their kids today that are having great success in stage adaptations include Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse and Alexander's Terrible, Horrible Very Bad Day.

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