Fancy treating your littles to a manga-inspired feminist take on a classic fairytale? What about an intimate theater interpretation of a beloved (and more modern) children’s book? Perhaps they’d prefer an afternoon spent cheering for Portland’s young musicians as they storm downtown’s storied stages? Whatever your family’s jam, our spring performing arts guide offers countless ways to get cultured.
Childhood is nothing if not an epic adventure, fraught with discovery, humor and occasional peril, and kids in the thick of their own growing-up journeys will find much to relate to in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s springtime show, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
Many Portland families already know and love the children’s book of the same name, in which a vain, sheltered rabbit doll learns a little bit about life and a lot about love as he’s passed from owner to owner. The stage version of Tulane will breathe new life into this anthropomorphic classic, promises director Marcella Crowson: “It’s surprisingly funny. And the notion of a journey is really true. It has some tremendous ebbs and flows, from heartbreaking moments to great moments of levity and joy.”
OCT offers an acting academy and a variety of educational theater opportunities to Oregon kids, but this particular show will star five adult performers, each taking on several roles and playing a suite of musical instruments as they live-score the show. And it’ll all happen on a stage set square in the center of the auditorium.
“Tulane is a feast for the senses,” says actor Emily June Newton, who will play The Traveler (the show’s lead storyteller) in addition to singing and taking up the violin, keyboard, ukulele and melodica: “It’s got layers of emotion and layers of generations and layers of time. … For me as a performer and a musician and character actor, it ticks everything off: Multiple characters, multiple instruments, and I get to do storytelling for the whole audience.”
Newton, an Australia native, is eager to pass on her love of performance through acting as well as teaching local kids at OCT: “I grew up in a pretty rural environment, and for me, theater was really a huge part of feeling like I was part of a community and feeling like I was heard and appreciated and encouraged,” she says.
During her long tenure acting with Northwest Children’s Theater and School, Sophie MacKay has developed a ritual.
At five minutes till places, when her makeup and costume are at the ready, she’ll stand quietly backstage, near the curtain, and just … listen.
“I listen to the audience and feel the buzz and energy coming from them,” says the high school senior. “That always gets my energy up.”
This spring, for her NWCT swan song, MacKay will play Snow White in an original musical rendition of the classic fairy tale. But don’t expect the coy, blushing heroine of common lore, warns show director and NWCT associate artistic director John Ellingson.
This revival retelling is manga-inspired and just a bit dark, with seven spirits replacing the seven dwarves and girl power taking center stage. There’s also music, dancing, a gigantic dragon puppet, and some spirited all-girl fight scenes.
“The quest was to take the original story and update the content mainly to have a stronger female role,” says Ellingson. “We want girls to leave this show feeling they are powerful and they are strong naturally, and if they want to do something, they probably can.”
NWCT serves young thespians ages 3 to 18 through its theater classes and camps. Some, like MacKay, start young and stay for the long haul. Over time, MacKay has honed her acting and dancing chops and polished her singing abilities. And aside from tackling countless starring and supporting roles in second and mainstage shows, she’s interned, helped teach younger students, and learned the tech ropes.
Such dynamism is key to the NWCT approach, notes Ellingson, with a rigorous production and performance schedule pushing students to constantly expand their repertoires.
MacKay says she’ll leave NWCT and head to college next year with a deep reverence for the intense connection between an actor and her audience: “No matter if the theater is huge or a small black box theater, there’s something about being in the same room and breathing the same air. It’s a magical place to be, and you get swept away from the rest of the world for those two hours.”
Musicality is all in the family for Taylor and Ashley Yoon, ages 14 and 12. Besides regularly performing around town in a trio with their eldest sister, these two siblings are dedicated members of the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Symphony Orchestra.
Taking the stage is a rush like no other, says Ashley, who plays violin: “It’s exhilarating to play with a big audience in front of you. … This is kind of like our energy drink!”
PYP’s Symphony Orchestra insists on excellence in its young performers, who generally range in age from 15 to 18, with a few younger and older performers thrown into the mix. It’s an incredible amount of work, admits Taylor, who plays cello, but the thrill of playing live is worth it. “The hardest part is getting prepared for what’s going to come. And the best part is being able to play and have the crowd cheering for you.”
Whether a kid plays in an orchestra or simply attends a performance, music is an ideal tuning fork for little minds, says Portland Youth Philharmonic musical director David Hattner: “Music plays such an enormous role in the emotional life and the emotional memories of all people. There is almost no person for whom hearing a certain piece of music or a song will not bring back very specific memories.”
Is a musical career in store for the Yoon sisters? Neither girl has decided for sure, and that’s just fine, says Hattner. PYP is the country’s oldest youth orchestra organization, and it’s always focused more on shaping kids into better-rounded human beings than on grooming them to become career performers (though some go on to do just that).
“We inspire them through the performance of great music to achieve things that when they first joined our organization at the age of 9 or 10, they never imagined they’d be a part of,” he says. “Then, they can look back and say, ‘Wow, I did that. That’s great.'”
Casting about for a kid-friendly introduction to the joys of orchestral music? Hit the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall April 17 for Dance Party, an OS Kids Concert tailor-made for little wiggle worms. The performance features a selection of music liable to leave you dancing in your seats, from West Side Story’s Mambo to Gilére’s Russian Sailor’s Dance. The Pacific Youth Choir and members of the Dance West dance academy will also perform. This hour-long show is designed for listeners ages 5 to 10. Moving around (in your seat, of course), laughing and clapping are encouraged!
If you ask MYS interim director William White, Portlanders are a lucky lot when it comes to kid friendly music-and-arts offerings.
“Before I came here, I never saw Portland as necessarily a Mecca of the classical arts,” he says. “But between all of [the music programs] in town, there’s probably well over 1,000 kids enrolled in extracurricular music activities in Portland.
White first picked up the viola as a fourth-grader, and soon discovered a passion for performance that would endure through elementary school, high school and college. He also developed a love of conducting and composition, which he’s using today to stir similar passions in the hearts of Portland’s youngest musicians.
A musical education enriches a child’s life in countless ways, he says: It fosters sensitivity to art and communication, promotes discipline, and helps kids build deep, enduring bonds.
“It allows young people to make these lifelong friendships,” he says. “Music is this special thing that is so personal and so rich. … It’s a way to find your tribe and make real connections that last for a long time.”
MYS is a musical home to more than 500 pint-sized Pacific Northwest performers — from preschoolers to high school seniors — and attending an MYS mainstage performance is a fun way for families to increase their musical literacy.
The selections appeal to kids, for sure, but these concerts are definitely not short on substance, promises White: “Coming to an MYS concert is something between, say, going to an Oregon Symphony kiddie concert, which is very much geared toward short selections that little kids can appreciate, and going to a formal concert, where you’re seeing a symphony being performed. This is like an intermediate step.”