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Brown Baggin' It

The Paper Bag Players play. logo

An enraptured theatergoer lost in the moment scampers onstage during a musical number. In most instances this would be a mortifying experience for actors and audience alike. Had this happened at James Joyce's The Dead, or practically any other show, the interloper soon would have been looking at the theater from the outside. But fortunately for the culprit, when your age has yet to reach double digits some things can be overlooked. After all, this was a production of the Paper Bag Players, a 40-year mainstay of the children's theater world, and a place where audience participation is encouraged.

"He ran up not to interrupt but just overcome with that desire to be part of it," recalls Judith Martin, the company's co-founder and artistic director. And that's exactly the emotion she hopes to elicit from the 100,000 children, aged 4 to 9 years old, who see Paper Bag performances each year. "The thing that gets me going the most is, I love to tickle children and I love to surprise them. That always gives me a big thrill," says Martin, who's the organization's Barbra Streisand--writing, directing, and performing.

Like most Paper Bag shows, Molly Wiggle and Minnie Shake, Martin's 34th (at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse through March 12), blends a medley of new vignettes and past favorites. In the title sketch, three rambunctious kids create chaos wherever they go--from a department store to outer space. An ailing boy battling a cold faces off with his runny nose in "Chills and Fever." And a posse of feline companions--represented simply on a giant roll of brown paper--descend upon a girl on her way home in "Cats."

Since its inception, the Paper Bag Players have thrived by turning the ordinary aspects of children's lives into amusing and stimulating entertainment.

They've been hailed as innovators in the field for their content as well as their design--props and set pieces are constructed from paper and cardboard products that a child might use in play. Along the way, Martin has been recognized by Parents magazine, and the company has received an Obie Award and two Artistic Achievement Awards from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.

"When we first began, we were rather unusual," recalls Martin, who has led the Paper Bag Players since 1963, five years after its inception. "Since we began it's become much more common for theaters to ... look for simple materials and simple ideas, and be much more directed to children rather than giving them some adult fare which has been watered down for children."

At the time that Martin and her friends--actress Sudie Bond and painters Remy Charlip and Shirley Kaplan--started the company, she was teaching dance, which inspired some of the early pieces. In the ensuing years Martin (who declines to give her age because people say, "Oh, you're so wonderful at your age.") has watched the Paper Bag Players evolve without shifting its original focus.

Today, she says, the shows are more inclusive of the audience. "We always had some audience participation because we realized very early on that that was a high point for children, when they take over, when they seem the most excited, the most involved," she explains. "We used to provide some opportunity for that, but now it seems to me that our whole show is inclusive in that way. When there's that feeling in the audience that the story is theirs, it's a very exhilarating atmosphere."

Children can sing and dance in front of their seats as they learn the words and steps to "The Paper Bag Rag" and help a lost family of tubular creatures find each other in the mall. "The idea was to take the notion of being lost and desperate and looking for someone and carry that into something comic rather than fearful."

The group has also worked into their repertoire a series of "painting pieces," in which an actor paints the backdrop of a story on a large piece of paper as events unfold on stage. And Martin doesn't think the children of the millennium have been too digitalized by computers, video and film to find pleasure in such seemingly rudimentary entertainment. "In our theater there is no hidden theatricality," she observes. "The effects are right there. The paper turns around and the image gets larger, and I think that is so typical of children's play and that will always be very close to children."

Regardless of language or cultural differences, it seems. Martin remembers some trepidation prior to a tour of Japan over how kids in that country would respond to the show. "Our sponsors were very concerned because Japanese children tend to be formal and reserved," she remembers. "But you hear the first little laugh and you know that they're with you."

Once the New York run ends, the Paper Bag Players will take Molly Wiggle and Minnie Shake on tour across the country through May.

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