If you’re a kid (or a parent) in Asheville and the surrounding area, you’ve pretty much got it made as far as age-targeted arts programs are concerned.
For young visual artists, inspiration can take hold at the Asheville Art Museum — under renovation for a bigger and brighter future — or in the River Arts District, where certain studios offer demonstrations or classes for adults and kids alike.
Over on the performing arts side of the spectrum, though, the kids’ programming is especially rich, and local theater troupes like Asheville Creative Arts and Bright Star Touring Theatre offer fun, inspiring and often educational work that younger (and older) audiences have enjoyed for more than a decade.
While local theater staples like Flat Rock Playhouse, Asheville Community Theatre and Attic Salt offer programs suitable for young audiences — and both ACT and North Carolina Stage Company offer youth theater classes and camps to kids and teens of all ages — Asheville Creative Arts and Bright Star excel as local companies specifically dedicated to children’s theater.
David Ostergaard, founder and owner of Bright Star Touring Theatre, developed an interest in theater at a very young age.
“I grew up in Sylva, and my parents had season passes to Western Carolina University and I went over there as a kid to see productions,” he explained. “I was just mesmerized by theater. That early introduction got me into it, and I knew from early on what I wanted to do and never looked back.”
Through his work with the local, internationally touring theater, Ostergaard made it his mission to give back to the same community that inspired his life path, while also spreading the joy of theater around the globe.
Over at Asheville Creative Arts, co-founder and producing director Abby Felder echoes that sentiment.
“Growing up, I was very, very active in Children’s Theater of Charlotte,” she said. “It was an incredible experience for me, and it really armed me with a lot of skills, like critical thinking, that have helped me in my life going forward.”
Hoping to fill a need on the local theater scene, Felder and a group of other talented individuals created Asheville Creative Arts. While Bright Star was already established and successful by then, it’s primarily a touring company, traveling across the country and the world.
Now in its fifth season, ACA produces a small mainstage lineup of just two or three kids’ classics over at the Magnetic 375 theater in the River Arts District, and throughout the year, the troupe also puts on performances for its incubator series, which tests out new works in front of an audience.
While children’s programming can often descend into the entertainment-only realm, that’s not the kind of work that’s made the ACA and Bright Star so popular.
“We really wanted to double-down on making work that pushes the boundaries of children’s theater,” Felder said. “That’s why, when choosing our name, we didn’t go with Asheville Children’s Theatre. Do we need to be making a distinction of work that’s for children and work that’s for adults? Our thing is to appeal to all audiences.”
And with an education system that’s “more focused on testing with less room for the arts,” it’s especially important for entertainment to also impart teachable moments, Felder said, whether it’s in a lesson to be learned or discovering a new medium for expression.
“Not to sound cliche, but young people are the future, and we need to show them the value of their own stories — and arm them with the tools for telling their own stories,” she said. “Children’s theater is really important in that its content allows kids to practice empathy and to see diverse people in all kinds of roles — and that’s the type of work that we’re doing. We need to teach kids to ask questions and use critical thinking that will make them even better adults.”
In the midst of its 14th season, Bright Star puts on about 1,800 shows per year in 28 states — and, over the last several months, the company toured across Europe at English-speaking schools in Russia, Germany and elsewhere.
Just like ACA, each production from Bright Star aims to provide context for educational and social issues that kids and teens are taught in the classroom.
“I was going to aim for Broadway and be an actor, but I realized that that’s kind of a crazy dream,” Ostergaard said, mentioning the competitive nature of becoming a (stable) professional actor.
“Instead, I realized that I could impact people’s lives with theater,” he said. “Kids can learn about history by reading a textbook about Rosa Parks — or they could sit in a theater and watch her refuse to move for the bus driver.”
The goal for much of Bright Star’s work is to make history — and its lessons — come alive, connecting the dots between what’s learned in detail in the classroom and the actual events that set history in motion.
For the 2017 touring season, Bright Star is gearing up to really focus on its already extensive black history programming, bringing stories alive from African folktales and “Freedom Songs” to the American Civil Rights movement — and other crowd favorites, like “George Washington Carver and Friends.”
“We’re covering topics that are really important for people to learn,” Ostergaard said. “I think theater is a great way to bring things alive that are hard to read about or study. It brings history to life and gets them engaged — to see where we’ve been and where the future is potentially going.”
Over at Asheville Creative Arts, the future is here — and it’s told in the post-modern world of Little Red Riding Hood. From April 6-9, ACA will present “The Little Red Riding Hood Show,” which offers a new take (and a twist) on a classic childhood fairy tale.
“The story looks at: What are some of the modern day ‘wolves’ that children and their parents are facing?” Felder explained. “The wolf (symbolizes) what’s unknown, what’s lurking out there.”
And, for parents in the 21st century, there’s often a big issue in dealing with kids and the internet. (Does your 9-year-old have his own YouTube channel?)
“How are kids communicating with each other and how are parents protecting them online?” Felder asked. “In this play, it’s the mother that delivers the moral of the story: It’s up to us parents to figure out when to swoop in and when to let them fight for themselves.”
In July, ACA puts on a production of “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.” Cute title and all, “Moo” teaches children how to stand up for what’s right in unfair situations — in the entertaining form of chilly farm animals staging a peaceful protest.
While the ACA’s productions can be found at Magnetic 375, Bright Star is a bit harder to find. On a normal year, the touring troupe has a partnership with the Asheville Community Theatre, but, while ACT renovates and reconstructs its downtown space, the regular programming there has been put on hold.
The absence of a theater, though, is no issue for Bright Star, which, in its extensive global touring, generally performs in smaller venues like schools and libraries — and, essentially, anywhere else that they’re hired to perform.
In January, the group performed Black History Month shows at the North and West Asheville libraries — and the troupe is a regular at Henderson County, Hickory and Jackson County libraries.
“We’re huge in the Northeast and in Seattle and Arizona — we do shows all over the place,” Ostergaard said. “But we would love to do more shows locally. Primarily, we perform in schools. We bring everything we need with us, and we don’t require anything from the school other than 45 minutes to put on the production.”
To book a show for a school, event or venue with the theater company, head over to www.brightstartheatre.com — or wait to see what’s bright in the future for Bright Star.
“We’ve really developed an international following, and the future of our company is really exciting,” Ostergaard explained. “We’re becoming a multimedia company, producing children’s literary books and children’s television. … We love things like black history, and we don’t think there’s a representative number of black history TV shows available — and it’s such an important thing. So we’re filming television programs to offer online or on PBS. We’re really excited about where the future is taking us.”
And, whether it’s Bright Star’s tour performing at a school auditorium or a class field trip to see ACA’s matinee theater shows, both Ostergaard and Felder stress the importance of introducing kids to the arts as part of an enriching education.
“A lot of kids in our local community can’t afford to go to (the theater),” Felder said, mentioning that school trips are often low- or no-cost. “Western North Carolina has a higher concentration of generational poverty than the rest of the state — and in order for young people to break that cycle, they need to be able to imagine something different. They need to be able to imagine something, period.
“Imagination, critical thinking, empathy, abstract thinking, creativity. We seem to take these skills for granted as being innate, but they’re really not,” she continued. “These are things that we need to model and embody and allow kids to practice so they can carry these skills over into the rest of their lives.”
Bright Star and ACA are the big two, but there are plenty of selections of kid’s programming in the Asheville theater scene.
Also making its rounds in the River Arts District is the Attic Salt Theater Company, which, last year performed weekly family shows for its Saturdays on Stage series at Magnetic 375, bringing classic (and lesser known) folktales to the stage at 10 a.m. each Saturday morning.
Though the troupe is taking a short hiatus from its Saturday morning series (after moving into its very own space in The Mill at Riverside), the kid favorites from Attic Salt will be back in the spring, along with a host of birthday party offerings. Meanwhile, starting Feb. 11, Attic Salt will be launching Acting for Littles, theater classes for ages 4-6 in its new space at 2002 Riverside Drive, Suite O.
While not necessarily a local theater company, the very local Diana Wortham Theatre has two great kids’ theater programs in its 2017 matinee series lineup, from the folks at Theatreworks USA.
This month, “The Teacher From the Black Lagoon and other storybooks” will make its rounds on stage for two days of morning and afternoon programming, at 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. on Feb. 21 and 22. In April, Theatreworks will be back, bringing the classic “Charlotte’s Web” to the beautiful downtown theater. Join Wilbur and Charlotte at 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. April 20 and 21 at the Diana Wortham Theatre downtown.