For his first directing gig at ZACH Theatre, Nat Miller chose a familiar classic that is sure to be the hot topic at all the best playgrounds in Austin. His hope for this show is to get audiences screaming at the actors from their seats.
“I’ve seen it all in my years of directing,” reveals Miller. “When it’s going well, they’re on the edge of their seat. Otherwise, they’re wiggling and yelling at you to do better.”
Well, it is children’s theatre, after all, so it comes with the territory.
Miller is the new Education Director at ZACH Theatre. And for his debut on the Whisenhunt Stage, he is bringing to life an adaptation of Laura Numeroff’s beloved primary book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
(If you haven’t read it already, it’s worth a read. Depending on your reading proficiency, it may take you all of two minutes. We’ll wait here for you.)
To recap: IYGAMAC is the tale of a mischievous mouse (played by multifaceted ZACH veteran Martin Burke) who makes a mess of everything after being given a cookie by a young boy (played by actual adult Michael Slefinger) who is left alone at home for the first time.
With only two cast members running tirelessly in literal circles around a set made up of oversized prop pieces, this 60-minute production is an experiment in physical comedy and vaudevillian slapstick. To say the least, by the end of each show, the actors earn their workouts for the day.
“The show is a great example of really amazing physical comedy,” says Miller. “The sight gags and visual bits translate into a universal language that appeals just as much to the three-year-old as the ninety-three-year-old.”
Lucky parents will get to enjoy IYGAMAC with their youngsters during the Saturday shows played for the public starting Feb. 18. During the week, however, the sold-out shows will be filled with students from schools around the Austin area, seventy percent of whom attend low-income schools.
“It’s a really important part of the educational outreach program here, that we give kids access to professional theater and that they realize that theater is not just an art form for the middle and upper class,” explains Miller. “There’s something special about bringing kids to the theater instead of just doing it in a cafetorium with bad lighting.”
Creative flexibility and the opportunity to direct full productions was the major draw for Miller when he made his decision to move to ZACH from The Paramount Theatre last year. “You build your future audience and you make them fall in love with the theatre with high quality shows,” he says. “Kids deserve that just as much as adults do.”
With extensive training in theatre for youth from The University of Texas and Southern Methodist University, Miller is a firm believer in the possibilities of theatre and the importance of reaching children when they're still young. He quotes Linda Hartzell of Seattle Children's Theatre, who teaches directors that children's theatre ought to be as compelling and as universal as a Pixar movie or a Cirque de Soleil show.
"That's what I love about children's theatre," says Miller, with a smile. "It's just like regular theatre, only harder. Because these audience members will tell you what they think while you're still performing. You have to win them over."
Slefinger, a former after school educator with Theatre Action Project, was also drawn to the challenge as well as the respectful attitude towards young audiences. “The idea that we’re doing a show that is geared toward the kids rather than dumbing it down or making it easier for them really appeals to me.”
Burke, who has performed with ZACH’s children’s theater ensemble Playspace during his fourteen years with the company, is thrilled to return to the high energy and honesty of children’s theatre.
“I think it’s hilarious when kids interact and scream and get involved with the characters. They’re always so vocal and literal and appreciative with their reactions,” Burke reflects. “The Mouse is a real goonball, and I can’t wait to make the kids really yell. Especially because they’ve all read the book so they know what happens already.”
For Miller, having an established ZACH performer like Burke on the production provides a necessary air of legitimacy to a type of theatre that might get overlooked by Austin audiences who are not yet aware of the amazing instances of theater for youth happening in Austin and beyond.
“Professional children’s theater is a big idea in other cities, but Austin has not yet tapped in to that fully,” offers Burke. “ZACH could really make that happen since they already have such a big audience. I also think more kids’ theater is exciting for all us actors to have more opportunities to perform.”
In fact, Burke will be pulling double duty at ZACH in the month of March, doing performances of IYGAMAC during the day and the remounting of The Laramie Project at night. “I just hope I don’t mix them up one night and start doing this show during Laramie!”
Several of ZACH’s teaching artists will also be visiting the schools to conduct pre-show workshops in classrooms. Since most elementary schools do not include theater in their curriculum, visiting theater artists get students out of their seats and transform reading lessons into a fully new type of learning experience.
“There’s an early tie-in to childhood literacy with this play as well,” says Miller. “Because of the fun language and amazing visuals, a lot of ESL teachers use this book to help students learn English. I knew there would be a strong curricular tie-in and reach out to a lot of students.”
“Plus, these books are famous!” adds Burke. “My friends who are teachers love this series. If You Give a Pig a Pancake,…”
“If You Give a Moose a Muffin!” offers Miller.
“Sounds like a full season of shows to me,” says Slefinger.
Luckily, this is just the first of Miller's many productions to come aimed at young audiences. Austin’s youth have no idea they're about to experience years of exciting new learning opportunities available to them thanks to this young, passionate director who comprehends the value in professional theater for youth.
Public performances of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie occur Saturdays on the ZACH Theatre Whisenhunt Stage Feb. 18 - Mar. 24. Tickets are $15.00 for adults and $12.00 for children (3 and up).