Swamp as Theater

Learning through laughing has been the mission of South Florida's Fantasy Theatre Factory for more than twenty years. Founded in New York by Mimi Schultz and Ed Allen, two energetic teachers who would later become husband and wife, the touring theater troupe arose from the couple's frustration with the limitations of children's education. Committed to encouraging students to try new things, the duo took their own advice and enrolled in clown school, where they learned unusual ways to communicate through humor.

But the group's nontraditional methods are in peril after recent budget-cut proposals by Miami-Dade County Public Schools, a critical source of its funding and resources. The troupe, a veteran of Miami's temperamental education community, hopes that it's firmly anchored in order to weather the impending financial storm. "Cultural arts programs are vital for the well-rounded education of children," says Schultz. "Schools are the one level where we can be assured that kids will get exposure to the arts."

Fantasy Theatre Factory's latest endeavor, The Never Everglades, drops classic fairy-tale characters into an Everglades setting. Schultz has focused on our big, lovable swamp for two reasons: Her birthday falls on Earth Day, providing an affinity for the environment, and she feels youth need further instruction on environmental issues. Her ties to school board members and other branches of local government, such as the Department of Environmental Resource Management and the Water and Sewer Department, also helped; when it came to determining relevant topics for children, county bigwigs said more needed to be done on the Everglades. Since the company had performed at Fairchild Tropical Garden in the past, the verdant wonderland became the logical locale for this latest show.

In The Never Everglades, a young Florida Roseate Spoonbill named Dudley, acting as a local guide for migrating snow birds (real birds, not humans), comes beak to snout with three little entrepreneurial pigs, who are in the midst of building new condominiums in the saw grass. References to South Florida flora and fauna come to life through the actors' elaborate costumes and flamboyant comedic airs. Playing on things children typically associate with certain human traits is another tool the company uses to drive its lessons home. In this case Schultz wants the audience to understand that the actions of one individual can deeply impact the course of events for us all. "Kids understand that pigs are into excess, that they think only for themselves," explains Schultz. "But they see themselves in Dudley, the young up-and-coming character."

Fantasy Theatre Factory counts on the fun aspects of the play to impress youngsters. But if that fails, they will walk outside and surely be awed by precious Fairchild Tropical Garden. Faced with such beauty, the children might better understand the green that surrounds them is much more important than the green in their wallets.

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Maya Ibars