Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Discover the World Through Community Theatre

True, traveling is usually our thing, but I recently discovered that much of the same spirit of adventure - exploring the world, discovering new places, learning about different characters - comes into play (pun intended) at the community theatre - although on a different scale. As Nathan and Seamus embrace their new roles in Alice in Wonderland, I am amazed by the lessons they are taking home from the theatre - public speaking, problem solving, thinking quickly on their feet, adapting, community service and more!

“Hold onto wonder while you can”…the first line of Gerry Cullity’s opening song “Wonderland” in Desert Stages Theatre’s production of Alice in Wonderland pretty much sums up the theater’s philosophy. Kids off all ages marvel at the imaginary world created in each production at Desert Stages and that’s before they ever reach the stage. Executive Director Laurie Cullity (aka Miss Laurie) offers an atmosphere of fabulously controlled chaos in which kids revel. It’s like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory meets Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and yet amazingly she produces an incredible show when it’s all done.

In Gerry Cullity’s Alice in Wonderland, Nathan and Seamus, from the television show Travel With Kids, join a cast packed with the quirky, colorful characters that fill the pages of Lewis Carroll’s book…plus some. Miss Laurie says “it’s like a clown stage…we pack in as many kids as possible” wanting them each to have the chance to imagine, create and perform. In this production, characters range from an innocent Alice (“Alice hands!” Miss Laurie cries) to darling pearls fluffed in layers and layers of tulle to a bubble-spewing caterpillar. Nathan plays a Battling Squire while Seamus is the Queen of Hearts’ Guard. Each lead part is quadruple cast to give each child a chance to be in the spotlight to build confidence and presence before a crowd.

You can sense the excitement as opening night draws near. I hear one Pearl squeal “There’s a real audience out there…with REAL people!” The busy backstage buzzes as kids don colorful costumes and make-up, sing from their very souls, and put on a performance that could match the very best of community theatre. You can feel their stomachs turn with delight as they line-up at the dressing room doors, after a break-a-leg chat from Miss Laurie, and ready themselves to enter the wonderful world of acting.

While there are plenty of chances for kids to be in the spotlight, it goes beyond that at Desert Stages. “It is amazing to see children turn from this inward focus to an outward sense of community.” states a quote from Gerry Cullity displayed in the lobby. During each play, kids are expected to join the community to clean up the theatre, re-paint every wall and floor, re-organize countless costumes and props, and clean every nook and cranny. It gives children a sense of responsibility. They take ownership of the theatre; this is THEIR place. As well they should, not only are all the plays in the junior line-up performed by children, they also run the tech booth – lights and sound effects, and assist in directing and choreography.

With so many children participating, it’s a wonder how Laurie Cullity keeps track of them all, let alone directs them. But direct she does. Miss Laurie maintains absolute control and still takes time out to console a crying Knave of Hearts or applaud a Flower’s perfect bun. One moment she’s talking paint with a teenager and the next she’s assisting Nathan with choreography for his battle scene.

Gerry Cullity’s original songs also give the kids a chance to express themselves with catchy tunes in various genres. From a blues singing Cheshire Cat to a hip-hop version of “Walrus and the Carpenter”, the array of songs matches Carroll’s fantastical and imaginative vision of Wonderland. The whole audience, no matter their age, will be tapping their feet to the beat. Nathan and Seamus can’t seem to stop singing them, even recording them and texting to friends. In fact, Cullity’s songs are so memorable that the songs from last spring’s “Peter Pan”, in which the boys played pirates, still top their playlists.

The intimate theatre-in-the-round at Desert Stages means every seat is a good seat making it a perfect place for kids to experience their first…or fifty-first show. The fantasy of Alice in Wonderland runs now through March 25 and will surely have you grinning from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat. More information or tickets at www.desertstages.org

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Plant The Seed: Travel to the Places that Inspired Dr. Seuss

Known for his outlandish worlds and colorful characters paired with rythmic rhymes, Dr. Seuss is one of the best known children's authors in the world. His books have come to life in movies and on-stage bringing with them a flair for the fanstastical - afterall who can forget Jim Carey as the "The Grinch" tapping his furry fingers, grinning his wide, evil grin and pacing around talking to himself like a madman. This March, we can expect more of the same with the release of the animated film "The Lorax". Danny Devito plays the grumpy, and quite impish, main character sputtering famous lines such as "I speak for the trees" ensuring this will be classic Seuss fun. Just as intriguing to me are those Seuss landscapes - puffy pink and yellow trees, rainbow colored bushes, crazy sizes and shapes. It's "Those Tuffula Trees! All my life I'd been searching for trees such as these." that drives Seuss' main character to set up shop in "The Lorax". But what inspired the crazy shapes and colors of the landscapes on Seuss' pages? Where lies the muse of his imagination?

Living in San Diego, just north of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, Seuss' landscapes were inspired by the unique flora of the Sonoran desert. While filming Travel With Kids Baja last February, we had the chance to visit this desert, in which many species are unique, and it was like a Seuss story jumped right off the pages...wild shapes and colors punctuated an otherwise void and flat landscape. Opposites constantly contradicted eachother in this psychadelic landscape where prickly cacti shelter fluffy flowers. One of the kids' favorite, the towering telephone-pole-like Boojum trees, grow wildly almost exclusively on the Baja peninsula. Their branchless shape, stretching and knarled, surrounded by tiny green leaves and topped with a spray of twigs is Seussical in every way. Other cacti spring from what seems incredibly hostile soil in all shapes, sizes and colors - many appearing to defy gravity as their limbs curl in every direction.

Although we did not see any Brown Bar-ba-loots or Humming-Fish as populate the pages of "The Lorax", we did encounter another equally fascinating creature - the Gray Whale. During the months of January - April, the lagoons along Baja's Pacific Coast are packed with Grey Whales who come to shelter while courting and mating, birthing and raising newborns. These lagoons have long been a safe haven for the whales who make the longest mammal migration on earth, traveling thousands of miles from the Arctic Ocean. We visited Scammon's Lagoon, near Guerrero Negro, about midway down the Baja peninsula with Andiamo Travel . After a short launch ride past colonies of seal lions and huge mounds of salt (the salt flats here are the largest natural outdoor salt facility in the world), we hear spray and are covered in what the kids call "whale boogers" - the mist that rides the wind after a whale surfaces and exhales. Soon enough we are surrounded by whales and it's difficult to tell who is watching whom. One whale gets so close to the boat, you can see his eye peering up through the water - it's no wonder they call them "friendlies". The whale seems very curious and drifts closer, seemingly...and then actually...within touching distance. Nathan reaches over the side of the boat, and with a little help stretching over the side from another passenger, reaches through the water and gives the whale a little pat. Esther, co-owner of Andiamo Travel, says they never get within touching distance unless they want to be. She recounts numerous occassions where a whale lingers just out of reach, but this one hangs snug to the boat allowing both kids plenty of time to pet him.

The Gray Whales are making a come back thanks to their position on the endangered species list for so many years and the Baja Peninsula remains a pristine and remote outpost little touched by tourism. In addition to the desert and ocean life, there are many small towns and missions to visit. At the start of the road that runs down the peninsula are the cities of Tijuana and Ensenada and at end of the road lies Cabo San Lucas, a mega-tourist development with its own share of exciting family-friendly activities (and a nice respite from the rustic life along the peninsula), but in-between there is much to explore and discover. But go now, before a Once-ler comes along and starts cutting "Those trees. Those trees."!

For us Mexico has been a safe and fun adventure, but just in case, we always purchase travel insurance. We have used it for delayed luggage and medical mishaps and its worth every dime...even just for peace of mind. Consult A Doctor is a wonderful service offered by CSA Travel Protection that links you to a network of doctors on the road. Yes, they do sponsor our show, but yes we do use their services and have had excellent experiences with them as consumers.


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