On With the Show

Over 70 years ago a group of young Bay Area women got together with the goal of introducing kids to the performing arts. The nonprofit they founded, Children’s Theatre Association, has been putting on plays for thousands of local youngsters nearly every year since. “Our mission is to expose children to the joys of live musical theater,” says coproducer Alice Steele.

About 150 female volunteers, two-thirds of them from Marin, now present plays ranging from Sleeping Beauty to Alice in Wonderland to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and many more. This year’s show, Jack and the Beanstalk, the English fairy tale about a poor boy who sells his cow for five “magic” beans, kicks off in early November at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor’s Florence Gould Theater.

From the beginning, the San Francisco–based group’s aim was to introduce stage musicals to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed. Under an arrangement with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and local school districts, children from schools across the Bay Area are bused in with their teachers to see free performances each season. About 6,000 schoolchildren attend shows in November and December; then, from January to mid-February, Saturday shows are open to the public for a nominal ticket price (proceeds help fund the organization).

But the real work starts earlier for the women behind the curtain, who begin rehearsing at least twice a week in September. This year, 28 of them have acting roles in Jack and the Beanstalk; the rest work on costumes and sets, among other tasks.

Many of the women, like Diane Blackman of San Rafael, have been performing with the troupe for over 10 years. “There’s such camaraderie in the group,” she says. “We really have a lot of fun rehearsing and performing. And it’s such rewarding work, especially when we perform for kids who don’t have a chance to see live theater. You feel very good being able to give them this very special experience for an hour.”

Although all members devote their time for free—including Steel, who spends many hours reading plays, working with the cast and e-mailing and making calls—paid professionals are brought in to direct the plays. The group’s musical director, Bill Keck, also works with San Francisco’s popular cabaret show Beach Blanket Babylon.

The true payoff ultimately lies in the young audience’s response. “For many of these kids, it’s the first time seeing live theater,” says Steele. “Sometimes you get to a really magical scene in a play and you see how their eyes sparkle.”

For more information and to buy tickets to this year’s performance, go to ctasf.com.

Image 1:  From left, Peggy Haas, Benita Truman, Gerri Eszterhas, Holly Noble
Image 2:  From left, Nancy Martin, Brenda MacLean, Terry Keye