When a theater is packed with children instead of adults, it becomes a site not of high culture but of mass fidgeting. On a recent Wednesday morning, the Shores Performing Arts Theater was filled with an audience whose heads barely topped the backs of their seats. The crowd was neatly divided by race: black kids from Holmes Elementary and the Joseph Caleb Center; white kids from Miami Country Day School, wearing red visors more appropriate for an elder hostel bicycling tour than a school field trip. Also among the squirming sea of youngsters in Miami Shores were a few home-schoolers, herded by a mother wearing earth tones and toting an infant in a traditional Mayan sling.
Every child's ticket was paid for, either through grants or donations. The play to be performed was The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the PlayGround Theatre's adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story about toys that come to life at night: a miserly piggy bank, a beautiful ballerina, a frumpy doll, a mean troll with Napoleonic aspirations, and the eponymous tin soldier. For some children in attendance, the performance would be their first theatrical experience. And although the PlayGround also features plays for adult audiences, it is these children whom the company's founders, Coral Gables residents Stephanie Ansin and Oleg Kheyfets, hope to reach the most. The goal of the PlayGround, in its second year of existence, is to foster a love for the medium, and to do so beginning at a very young age.
The plan to establish a serious children's theater in South Florida began as a school project. In the late Nineties, Ansin was working toward her master of fine arts in directing at Columbia University. She signed up for a class at the Manhattan Theatre Club called Design Your Own Theater Company. Assignments included applying for grants, inventing the company's history and mission statements, planning mock special events, and forming a board of directors. Ansin's project was a children's theater, called the PlayGround, whose mission was adapting world classics and literature for kids.
In 2003, Ansin was still living in New York, married to Russian director Oleg Kheyfets and expecting a baby. A Coral Gables native and graduate of Ransom Everglades, Ansin wanted to move back home with her expanding family. The PlayGround was revived, the plan now enhanced by Kheyfets's years of experience in producing youth theater.
"I had never been to Miami Shores in my life," says Ansin. "I didn't even know what it was."
But word reached Stephanie's mother, Miami City Ballet founder Toby Ansin, that the Miami Shores Performing Arts Theater was lacking financial stability and was looking to produce more plays for children. With a $300,000 grant from the Ansin Foundation (endowed by Stephanie's father, WSVN Channel 7 owner Edmund Ansin), the newly founded PlayGround agreed to take over the 78-year-old lease on the Miami Shores Performing Arts Theater's stage, an old movie theater on NE Second Avenue. Only three years later, Ansin and Kheyfet's daughter is two and a half, and their theater company is well on its way to becoming a Miami-Dade cultural institution.
In the tradition of Russian theater, the plays at the PlayGround are in repertory. "In keeping the shows alive longer, you can justify investing in real sets and spending real money," says Ansin.
The sets are beautiful. Kheyfets imports his set and costume designers from Russia, many of them former colleagues who have won top awards in their native country for their work. The Steadfast Tin Soldier features an enormous chair that takes an hour to assemble. Its presence is key to giving a sense of scale to the tiny toys that scamper at its feet. For The Beast, a Soviet play that Ansin describes as a "postapocalyptic Romeo and Juliet," set technicians methodically destroyed an old car, wielding blowtorches in Toby Ansin's Coral Gables back yard to create a creepy hulk of burnt-out machinery.
The PlayGround Theatre's emphasis on quality and permanence distinguishes it from other attempts at youth theater in South Florida. Ansin compares the selection of plays to choosing a spouse. The 2006-2007 season includes new additions such as A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Nilo Cruz's adaptation of a short story by Gabriel García Márquez; and, for adults, The Creation of the World and Other Business, Arthur Miller's dramatization of Genesis.
Other works in the PlayGround's repertoire, such as Brazilian playwright Maria Clara Machado's Pluft, the Little Ghost, are established children's classics that can be incorporated into the curricula of local schools, such as Ada Merritt Elementary's Portuguese immersion program. Kheyfets first directed Pluft in Siberia, where he set it in a tropical paradise. For Miami audiences, he has set it in a frosty Arctic landscape. In spite of the different role that theater plays in the cultural landscape of Russia, where it is much more mainstream than in the United States, Kheyfets says that as far as children are concerned, there's no difference.
"I don't think there's any difference between Miami kids and Siberian kids," he shrugs. "Kids are the same." In other words, theater is new to everyone at a young age.
For pieces that the PlayGround has produced for adults and young adults, like The Beast, Kheyfets has been surprised by the response. The company has received letters from high school seniors thanking them for taking the risk "for not having a happy ending," says Ansin.
"The biggest, warmest response has come from young adults," adds Kheyfets. "I don't remember that in Russia."
The couple hopes that today's young audiences will grow up to form a culture of theatergoers in Miami. "In ten years, the six-year-olds will be sixteen; the ten-year-olds will be twenty, and theater will have become a part of their lives. In countries with a strong theatrical tradition, that is how it's done," Kheyfets explains. "In this country, to play sports is considered natural, to be healthy is natural. We hope it will be natural to feel the need for theater."
As the lights dimmed at Wednesday's performance, the crowd of children from wildly differing Miami cultures hushed in anticipation. When the chubby piggy bank shuffled her wide berth across the stage, they cackled with laughter. When the ballerina pirouetted, they sighed in amazement. And while cautiously attentive adults led a near-constant procession of tykes to and from the bathroom, the LEDs on their sneakers blinking in the darkness, the young audience, it is safe to say, was nothing short of enraptured.
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