By Kent R. Brown
There is nothing so memorable for an audience, especially young audiences, as a live theatrical experience rich in dramatic imagination. Dedicated to that purpose is the Pollyanna Theatre Company, a small band of Austin-based players committed to bringing new works to eager minds.
In existence only since 2000, Pollyanna is under the artistic directorship of Judy Matetzschk-Campbell. A doctoral graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, Judy has directed over 20 productions in the Austin area and has collaborated on the writing of several performance scripts. She has taught elementary and college level classes and has conducted numerous workshops focused on integrating the arts into the daily school curricula. Judy recently visited with Dramatic Publishing to discuss the evolution of Pollyanna and share her views on theatre for young people.
Is it true that when you started Pollyanna you ran the theatre out of your home? At the dining room table?
It was the kitchen table! And, yes, that's were it all started. Some friends and a few actors. Isn't that how all theatre companies begin? We have office space in Austin now. With locks on the doors and everything.
I've always loved the character Pollyanna from Eleanor Porter's book from the early 1900s. Pollyanna is a little orphan girl who has been shuffled from home to home, lives in poverty and has nothing she can call her own. But she resolves to overcome her difficult circumstances with real grit and determination, and she always keeps love and hope alive in her heart. I can think of no greater example to set for young audiences than this one. When selecting scripts for production or for development, we always ask ourselves, "Is there real hope in this story?" If our answer is no, it is a play we will not produce. This is not to say that we only do "light" pieces. What it means is that we look at hard issues and find hopeful outcomes.
Where do you perform?
Austin has a very large and active theatre community but relatively few performance spaces, so we usually lease at least two different venues each season. We've worked in the Dougherty Arts Center and in several of Austin's smaller spaces such as the Austin Playhouse and The Arts on Real Theatre. When we "grow up" we hope to have our own space. For now, we rent.
What plays have you produced so far?
Our fist production was Edward, the Owl and the Calico Cat by Emily Cicchini, our resident playwright, based on the life and writings of Edward Lear. Emily also created for us. We've presented a diverse range of material: In the Garden of the Selfish Giant by Sandy Asher, A Dragon's Happy Day by Emily, Shame the Devil: An Audience With Fanny Kemble by Anne Ludlum, and A Christmas Rose and Community Helpers on Wheels also by Emily. In 2004, our company members co-created Tangled Tricksters, and we recently completed an exciting collaboration with Ballet Austin entitled Trail of Tears: Walking the Choctaw Road. We also do works for adults at least once each season. This past season, we adapted I'm Not the Woman I Was: The Memoirs of Frances Nall.
How large is your company?
Our usual cast size is four or five actors who double in countless ways. The actors love playing multiple roles, creating up to 18 distinct characters in an hour. And for very young children I think it shows them a great deal about how imagination can be used to tell any story. But our casts vary with the needs of the shows. We've mounted a production of A Christmas Carol for a solo actor who plays 38 roles, and we recently collaborated with Ballet Austin to create Trail of Tears: Walking the Choctaw Road involving multiple collaborators.
Tell us about that joint venture.
Our two companies decided to create a new dance drama for young audiences entitled Walking the Choctaw Road, based on Choctaw stories surrounding the Trail of Tears. Author Tim Tingle, one of the Choctaw tribe's storytellers who recently published a book of Choctaw stories, gave us permission to bring the stories to the stage. It required an ensemble of nearly 25 actors, designers, dancers and technicians. Everyone contributed ideas and solutions to the problems of creating a compelling narrative through dialogue, dance, image and sound. Exhausting but very exhilarating.
What do you see as the essential benefits of close collaboration?
Good collaboration makes it possible to create deeper work. I never go into a rehearsal with all of the answers. I want to be part of a process that involves talented people who are good thinkers. Although I'm the director and the buck stops ultimately with me, I'm always thrilled when an actor or a designer shows me something I've never thought about or opens a door to an idea that I couldn't see alone. That doesn't mean I don't follow my gut impulse. But I'll also follow the gut instinct of other artists that I trust and admire. We all work hard to be as honest and open as we can. Working as a team has never let me down so far.
Do you cast locally?
Austin is blessed with a large pool of very good actors so, yes, I cast from our local pool. There is a stable of 10 actors or so that we work with on a regular basis.
It's hard for a small theatre to get a toe hold these days. How are your numbers?
We stage five productions per season, with each production having between 15 to 25 performances. In 2001-2002, we served approximately 4,500 young people. By the end of this current season, we hope to have played to 15,000 or more.
Funding can't be an easy problem to solve each season, especially for a small company.
It's a problem that never goes away. Our budget is very small. We spend approximately $8,000 to $10,000 per production. We work with earned income from ticket sales and from small donations from individuals in our community. We eventually hope to develop a track record that will make us attractive to corporate and foundation sponsorship. But we do pay our actors. Usually a flat fee for their rehearsal and "x" number of performances. If bookings warrant an extension, then they are paid a flat fee per performance above their original contract. The salaries range from $500 to $1,000 depending on the length of the run. A solo performer will make more, of course. We are working all the time to increase actors' salaries.
How is your board support?
We have eight board members who are all very dedicated. The one thing I ask is that they see all of our productions and bring other ticket buyers with them. Their whole job right now is supporting the theatre by talking to friends and colleagues about our mission and the work we do. This goodwill in the community is invaluable to us right now. But the board is being challenged now to grow in size, and I'm asking individual members to nominate potential new board members from the community who will support what we do with their time, their talents, and their funds. If Pollyanna is going to grow in the pattern we want, we need a board that can go after corporate and foundation sponsorship. That's our next big step. We're getting there.
Where do you find your audiences?
Our largest numbers—around 2,000—come in the summer months when summer camp programs are looking for good summer activities.
Any school touring?
Our school audiences fluctuate a great deal due to the demands on the local schools to make time to prepare for standardized testing. We are struggling to build school audiences in an atmosphere where every single instructional minute is of great value to teachers and principals.
School districts across the country have reduced funding support for extracurricular activities. How is Pollyanna faring?
For the past several years in the Austin area there has been little or no money budgeted in our local schools for arts enrichment. Although teachers had little money available in the past to bring in programs, they knew their students and the kind of material they wanted their children to see. They could lobby their principals to fund a theatrical event. But recently, the actual choices and decisions are being made by people who are not as close to the students' artistic needs. It's frustrating.
Various parent groups earn, raise or donate the funds for school enrichment programs to fill in the gap created by reduced district funding. And those parents, not the teachers, vote on how those funds are used. While they often consult with the teachers and principals, it isn't the same as the educators having control over their own funds. So, if a child's parents are big opera fans—or members of a symphony guild—and they are the ones directing the funds—
Then it's reasonable to assume that the parents might vote to underwrite an opera production or a symphony presentation.
Yes. And while we know the children benefit greatly from seeing operas and hearing symphonies, it means that theatre—which integrates music, dance, movement, language, and design—might take a back seat, or get completely cut out of the children's experiences altogether. There is another layer of adult decision-making between Pollyanna and our prospective audience that must be persuaded. But there are signs to suggest funding will improve. We're hopeful.
Yet, regardless of budget cuts and the daily financial costs of running a company, you still give seats away free.
It is soul-destroying to create something wonderful on stage and think there are children, perhaps right around the corner, who could be there but who can't buy a ticket. We are dedicated to making sure no one is turned away. An empty theatre seat is the greatest waste we could ever produce. We suggest a price for our tickets, but if there are patrons, adults included, who cannot pay the full suggested price, they are welcome to pay under our "Pay What You Can" program. We want people to be excited by good theatre. If they can't get into the theater, they can't experience the magic of live art.
And how do you define good theatre?
Everyone of all ages comes to the theatre to be stimulated by interesting characters and exciting conflicts. There should be a point of emotional and intellectual entry for all people watching a production, whether they are 5 or 50 or 500 years old. We love it when the 5-year-olds are laughing wildly at things the adults don't get and the adults are laughing wildly at things the children don't get. While nothing should be so "over the heads" of our youngest audience members that they are ever bored, we have no problem using challenging vocabulary and including adult characters who are facing adult problems. After all, no child lives in isolation. If we can facilitate better understanding and communication between generations, we've done our job!
In your mission statement you mention Pollyanna's commitment to creating new works.
What's wrong with staging the classic literature for young audiences?
Nothing at all. The classics are great. But the classics started out as new plays at one time. We believe new stories and plays that address the real-life needs and concerns of young people can become the classics of today. They might be new adaptations of a well-known story, or completely original stories about characters that our audience has never met before—works that we hope will stand the test of time and provoke thought for all ages. We believe that the classics are still being written.
Any tips on how to make the theatre experience richer for children?
Children need to know that with a live event, the story is going to exist only one time that day—between the actors on stage and the imaginations of the audience members. There is no big rewind button on the bottom of our set. If you miss a word of the dialogue or an image on the set, it is gone. So their attention has to be different—more focused—from what they are most used to with video, DVD, computer screens, or even television. And help them to understand that plays take place in time, even if they aren't linear in their structure. That a play begins, builds interest and then comes to an end. Being able to track through any action in this manner is needed when reading as well as when writing. It is one of the ways that live performance best supports general educational goals. It promotes observation skills, ordered thinking and pattern recognition.
And let the students have fun!
That's a must! Sometime we have groups of children who have been told that they must be quiet and "good." This sends a very odd message to children who haven't been to the theatre before. We often want them to respond! There are appropriate ways an audience interacts with the performers and nothing is worse than performing for a group of children who want to respond but who are held back from doing so. Children's theatre is all about spirit and energy. And after all, they are children. Let them enjoy themselves! Let them feel engaged! Let them have fun.
Any suggestions for other young artists who may wish to start a children's theatre company?
Make the time to get to know the teachers in the preschools and on the elementary school campuses in your community. Make phone calls to talk to them about your upcoming productions. They are your best allies. What the teachers need and what they know about their children and their school system really matters to you and your company as it is forming. Learn their names and greet them when they come to the theatre with their students. Make sure they know how much you appreciate the extra effort they expend to make sure their students see theatre. It matters!!!!! And be sincere when you do this. You cannot produce theatre for children without children!
What about other theatres in the area?
Other theatres are not your competitors; they are your allies. Foster an atmosphere of partnership, not competition. You all have the same goals, and there will always be more children than we can ever serve alone. Meet with them regularly to share information and to explore ways you can serve your community better together. Explore ways to co-produce, to share space, to share actors. This can work if everyone is willing to share a common outlook.
And last but never least. What about financial expectations?
Know up front that you will not make money. If you do, that is wonderful! But don't expect it. Look for several ways beyond the cash balance in the bank to measure your success. Are you serving larger audiences? Have you formed new partnerships? Have you challenged yourselves and the other artists working with you to learn new things and new skills? Set artistic goals for each production. Create imaginative ways to measure success with each production. Manage your expectations. Value progress on each goal. And don't give up! The struggle is worth it!
Many thanks for talking with us, Judy. May you and your tireless troupe enjoy great success this coming season.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.