From Moles to Lobsters: Boston Children's Theatre Redefines its Genre for a New Generation of Theatergoers
"Children's theater, to me, is about meeting children everywhere they live, not just where we want them to live."—BCT Artistic Director Burgess Clark
In an act of parental desperation, Joan Parker and her husband signed their son Dan up for an audition at Boston Children's Theatre after noticing a sudden change in his demeanor: "Dan, who was always sort of king of the rock, seemed lonely and lost. We couldn't quite figure out what to do about it."
Begrudgingly, Dan complied with his parents' wishes and took the trip from Lynnfield to Boston. Parker still remembers the relief she felt picking him up later that day. "When the auditions were over and we watched the kids come down the stairs, his cheeks were red, his eyes were shining…And he never shut up on the drive home." Now, 37 years later, Dan is a card-carrying member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Dan Parker's story is a common one in the theater community. Scratch the surface and you're likely to find a collection of oversized children whose journeys to the stage began long before they ever made their professional debuts. Just weeks ago, Billy Porter opened his Tony Award acceptance speech with a description of how the inspiration for his career came to him at the age of 11 when he watched Jennifer Holliday perform her number from Dreamgirls at the 1982 Tonys.
First introductions to theater can be extremely powerful. Yet the children's theaters that are primarily responsible for making these introductions often underestimate the capacities of their young audiences. They boil all of the nutrients out of their productions in fear that children will otherwise be unable to digest them. Even while glowing with gratitude to BCT for everything it gave her son, Parker couldn't help but poke fun at some of its material from all those years ago. "The first play that [Dan] was in was Mr. Mole Meets Thumbelina…You can see the dramatic possibilities." (laughs)
When Burgess Clark arrived at Boston Children's Theatre in 2008 to interview for the position of its newly vacated artistic director, he came ready to sniff out any lingering trace of Mr. Mole. "There's a huge difference between what I refer to as "kiddie theater" and what I refer to as "theater for children," said Clark. BCT's longtime reliance on the safe niche of "kiddie" productions, Clark believed, is what had been keeping the company in the shadows for so many years.
BCT is, in fact, the oldest children's theater in the country. Though it wasn't officially incorporated until 1951, it has had a presence in the Boston community since 1920, established in the wake of World War I as part of the post-war charitable corporation "Community Services of Boston Inc." Yet despite this long and distinctly American history, Clark remembers being surprised at how few people knew anything about the theater — himself included: "I was only aware of BCT when I was invited to apply for the position," he confessed. "Julie Taymor worked at Boston Children's Theatre back in the '70s. It spawned a lot of major careers and yet very few people know about it. And so I said, ‘Therein lies your problem.'"
During his extended interview process, Clark was upfront about the changes he had in mind for the theater. "When I interviewed with them, I said that BCT needs to specifically attack the topics that other children's theaters might be too shy to do." This is not to say that he strives to mold a children's theater that consistently leaves his young audiences in a puddle on the floor, nor one that force-feeds Bertolt Brecht to kindergartners . On the contrary, Clark includes at least one piece per season that targets each major age group, starting with preschool going all the way up to high school. His ultimate goal is to do justice to them all — even the ones meant for his youngest audiences. "I don't want to ever condescend to [children]," he said. "Even if we're doing The Velveteen Rabbit, I still want it to be an extremely high-quality production."
However, after signing on to Clark's plan, some board members were taken aback when they saw him begin to deliver on what he had promised.
During his second season with BCT, he launched a series of plays that reflected the theme of "justice through the eyes of a child." He began with a production of The Diary of Anne Frank in 2010 followed by To Kill a Mockingbird in 2011, finally leading up to a production of a new play that he had penned himself, Reflections of a Rock Lobster, which opened on the BCT stage in 2012.
Clark adapted Reflections of a Rock Lobster from Aaron Fricke's 1981 memoir, Reflections of a Rock Lobster: A Story About Growing Up Gay. The story follows a teenage Fricke, who, after coming out during his senior year of high school, was denied the right to bring another male student as his date to the prom. Fricke took his case (Fricke v. Lynch) to the U.S. District court where the judge ruled in his favor, setting a landmark precedent for gay rights.
"When I first announced Rock Lobster," Clark recalled, "I heard through the grapevine that there was actually a movement on the board to get me fired." The way he speaks about it now, it seems to have hardly fazed him. "It was a little bit daunting but I said, ‘Give it a chance. Let's see what it is.'"
The significance of Rock Lobster as a piece of children's theater became clear to Clark when young actors began stepping into the characters he had created. "It was those kids [who] said, ‘Let's push the envelope here…because this is what we see every day in the hallways.' Children's theater, to me, is about meeting children everywhere they live — not just where we want them to live," he added. "I think a lot of times people feel like they have to somehow soften the truth for children, but I find children the most honest audiences [who] exist out there."
Still, the board's primary fear was that the show, under the umbrella of "children's theater," would be marketed to an inappropriately young audience. The company, however, made the public aware of the show's mature content and, in its campaign, specifically targeted high school students. To the surprise of everyone at BCT, it was the community who decided its younger members were mature enough to hear what Rock Lobster had to say. "I was really heartened by how many upper-elementary and middle schools actually came to attend," Clark recalled. "We were just absolutely stunned by the response."
Even older audience members whose high school days had long since passed were responding strongly to the play. "On opening night, we had adult middle-aged straight married men apologizing for the bullying they had done in high school. We had teachers coming out in front of their classes right after the production in the theater. It was really kind of a lightning bolt." This deluge of enthusiasm and support resulted in a remounting of the production the following season in March of 2013.
During the show's first run, Clark invited representatives from Greater Boston PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to attend a performance of Rock Lobster, looking to build a partnership with the organization. One of these invited representatives was none other than the mother of Boston Children's Theatre's original Mr. Mole, Joan Parker.
Long after her son Dan had graduated from the BCT children's company, he came out to his parents and confessed that he had been bullied for many years in the Lynnfield school system. Dan had kept this part of his life completely hidden from both his mother and father, so it came as a shock to Parker to learn how difficult her son's childhood had been. Hoping to offer support and guidance to other parents like herself, she sought out Greater Boston PFLAG and soon became heavily involved with their anti-bullying campaign. Nearly four decades had passed since driving Dan to Boston for that first set of auditions when she was invited back to BCT to see Reflections of a Rock Lobster.
Sadly, Joan Parker passed away on June 12. Until the very end of her life, Parker was a member of BCT's advisory board and one of Clark's biggest advocates, constantly fighting for the development of new, cutting-edge works that push the boundaries of traditional children's theater. "It was great for me," she said, commenting on her reintroduction to the company. "[It] gave me an opportunity to pay back in some way what I felt they had done for Dan."
Thinking back on how far the theater has come over the past 37 years, Parker added, "The plays they are producing have transformed. Now its productions are so relevant, and I must say, very far away from Mr. Mole Meets Thumbelina — and that's probably a good thing."
In loving memory of Joan Parker: October 16, 1932-June 12, 2013.