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The newest theater scene in Central Arkansas isn't actually all that new. In 2002, a UALR writing professor and a UALR theatre student joined forces to create Children's Theatre to Go. Though both were passionate about theatre, professor Bob May and attorney Karen Owings were not interested in creating a new theatre venue simply for entertainment value. Their goal was to offer local kids a fun, creative way to explore their potential.
Designed to be a traveling children's theatre group, the company performed only once in Little Rock during its first year. But in the winter of 2004, Children's Theatre to Go garnered quite a bit of attention. After the group performed “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” three times in Heber Springs, they scheduled four Conway performances at UCA's Reynolds Performance Hall. The show was so popular they had to add a fifth performance, and Children's Theatre to Go has produced three plays a year since.
The company is a nonprofit focused on serving children who don't have adequate exposure to the arts in Arkansas schools. It caters to children ages eight and older, and the standing ticket price is $5, so families of all sizes and financial situations can afford to attend. There is no cost to audition or participate in the troupe's productions.
May and Owings say they were initially inspired by the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, which was established in 1965. That company's mission, “to create extraordinary theatre experiences, and to advance theatre as a means of educating, challenging and inspiring young people,” has played a significant role in the development of Children's Theatre to Go. Educational aspects of the Minnesota program, such as theater arts training and community engagement, are long-term goals that May and Owings said keep them focused on the future.
Earlier this year, Children's Theatre to Go received an Arts Expansion Grant from the Arkansas Arts Council. Until then, it had operated solely on contributions from local sponsors and the proceeds from performances, though donations of rehearsal and performance space by UCA's Reynolds Performance Hall help keep costs down. Next on the theater's wish list: a permanent home.
Owings, an attorney at Swindoll Law Firm in Little Rock and the theater's business manager, said that she worries that if learning isn't fun, children lose interest.
“Kids learn through play, and I believe learning goes hand in hand with artistic endeavors,” she said.
Besides playing mother hen during rehearsals, Owings takes an active character role in many of the productions.
May, now a writing professor at UCA, serves as Children's Theatre to Go's artistic director. He also writes and directs every play the company performs. (Seven of those plays have been accepted for national publication.) In rehearsals, May works the group with the steady hand of experience, but he keeps it fun for those with short attention spans. His original story lines seem to make it easy for the children fill their roles enthusiastically.
Currently in the middle of their fourth full season, the company is winding down rehearsals of “Sleeping Beauty,” which they'll perform at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 1 and Saturday, Aug. 2. Though the story has been around for ages, May, as he's been known to do, twists it into a more modern tale with time travel, hippies and dance numbers. While each production is ultimately intended to entertain, May says, “The themes in the shows teach the audience lessons in life.”
Whether the children involved are serious about a future in theatre or are simply there for the sense of accomplishment they feel at the end of each show, Children's Theatre to Go seems to be onto something.
“Self-discipline teaches you to be a better person,” Owings said. In a society that promotes television and video games as engaging entertainment, May and Owings have taken it upon themselves to awaken the next generation through theatre.