The art of playing

Marina Times - Program Notes
By Evalyn Baron
December 2011

YPT’s production of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice features Luke Howard as the sorcerer and Gavin Pola as the apprentice Photo: Young Performer’s Theatre
Once upon a time, we all loved to play. The kind of play that made us sweaty; the intense kind where we believed every imaginary circumstance we invented and gave it our all for the sheer fun of it. We invested it with every ounce of energy we had.

Then, somewhere on the road to growing into what we loosely term “adulthood,” we forget what we once loved and begin to think of life as hard work, saving our playing for our mandated two-week vacation. Generally, we separate work from play, and isn’t that a shame? Think about it. We should be ashamed that we allow our fears to annihilate the thing that makes childhood powerful: our ability to imagine and believe in what we dream.

The arts remind us that we are dreamers.

Therefore I propose, since there is no finer thing than sharing the arts with our children, that giving the gift of live theater to children is the finest of acts. So this month’s column introduces to those who do not know, and honors those who do, the work of a performing arts company that focuses on developing the talent and the audiences of tomorrow: the Young Performers Theatre of San Francisco, located in Fort Mason Center.

Founded in 1982 by Matilda Manning Kunin, this organization has not only presented hundreds of productions of literary classics such as Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, and Mother Goose Tales, it has fostered the talents of local writers, producing plays written specifically for Young Performers Theatre (YPT). Their Theatre Arts Academy teaches children as young as 3 years old performance fundamentals – requiring more discipline than simply letting the kids be cute in front of party guests – and instructs older kids in more demanding specifics of acting, singing and movement. Advanced students from the age of 9 can audition for YPT productions, giving them a chance to work with adult actors in professional situations.

Young Performers Theatre, founded on the belief that children need to experience live theater, has a Children In Need program that has donated over 20, 000 tickets to Bay Area theater, allowing kids to see other kids onstage. Rounding out their community efforts is the Theatre in Education program, supported by the Haas Foundation, which allows YPT to send theater professionals into schools, offering classes in creative play and teaching teachers the value of creative theater work throughout entire curriculums.

I recently spoke with the marvelous Matilda Kunin about YPT.

EB: How did your interest in theater for and by children begin?

MK: At the ripe age of 4, I got up on the stage of a showboat my grandpa took me to in our hometown and held the audience in the palm of my hand while I told them the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and that was it: the beginning of my love for the stage! I knew later that I wanted to explore theater in education, so I went to Northwestern University where work was just beginning in that field. From then on, I wanted to combine both performing and teaching children the power of theater.

EB: And YPT – how and why?

MK: I began this company as a tribute to my son Tony, who died quite young. I wanted to do something active to honor him. S.F. had very little entertainment for families and children combined. So I decided to start a theater to serve both. The education component came from my belief that kids benefit from theater training: the discipline, concentration, learning how to work with others, how to get along with all kinds of people. It teaches them to be brave, inventive, articulate, and strong in front of others. I love watching them grow in our classes.

EB: You use adults and youngsters in your shows.

MK: Yes. Like right now, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is performed by seven marvelous kids. Our young audiences love that. Future shows will have older actors as well, but I insist that kids’ roles be played by kids. And it’s our job to train them to be ready for that opportunity.

EB: You teach at Town School as well.

MK: Yes, it’s a privilege to watch generations of future talent ripen, both at Town and YPT. Theater teaches more about human relationships and human events than any other single subject, and taught properly, being in a play is a little cosmos all by itself, involving problem solving and learning about other cultures. Town School is very supportive. I’m glad to be part of it.

And everyone in the Marina District can be glad that Young Performers Theatre is in their own backyard. It’s for you and your kids. Go together! Enjoy! Young Performers Theatre of San Francisco: Fort Mason Center, Bldg. C, Room 300; 415-346-5550,