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updated: 5/5/2014 6:07 AM

Chicago's International Children's Theater Fest opens kids' eyes to the world

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  • Australia's Cre8ion stages "Fluff" for the International Children's Theater Festival in Chicago.

      Australia's Cre8ion stages "Fluff" for the International Children's Theater Festival in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Sean Young

  • Von Orthal Puppets are part of the homegrown "Chicago Puppetolio," being staged at the International Children's Theater Festival.

      Von Orthal Puppets are part of the homegrown "Chicago Puppetolio," being staged at the International Children's Theater Festival.
    Courtesy of Von Orthal Puppets

  • Nori Sawa will present the U.S. premiere of "Kaguya: The Bamboo Princess and other Stories" at the International Children's Theater Festival in Chicago.

      Nori Sawa will present the U.S. premiere of "Kaguya: The Bamboo Princess and other Stories" at the International Children's Theater Festival in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Shozo Kajiwara

  • A shadow puppet workshop is part of the International Children's Theater Festival.

      A shadow puppet workshop is part of the International Children's Theater Festival.
    Courtesy of Audrey Boonstra

  • Everyday objects are transformed in Spain's "Animales," part of the 15th annual International Children's Theater Festival.

      Everyday objects are transformed in Spain's "Animales," part of the 15th annual International Children's Theater Festival.
    courtesy of Eva Soriano

 
By Amy Fuller
aboerema@dailyherald.com

It's a festival of firsts at this year's Stages, Sights and Sounds celebration kicking off this month in Chicago.

The 15th annual International Children's Theater Festival, presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival, will feature productions from Australia and Spain for the first time, as well as new programs including readings with two critically acclaimed children's book authors.

The 2014 festival, which runs from May 6-24, is also the largest in its history, extending over three weeks as opposed to two, with a schedule of more than 30 international and local artists offering 48 programs across three Chicago venues.

"During Stages, Sights and Sounds, we introduce thousands of children, many for the first time, to international performers and their stories," said Phillip Bahar, executive director of the Chicago Humanities Festival. "For some attendees, these experiences become transformative moments that let a child see the world and what's around them with new eyes."

This year's celebration includes performances by four international theater companies, including artists from Sydney's Cre8ion, Perth's The Last Great Hunt and Madrid's El Retablo.

Though several shows are sold out, some remain open to the public. On May 17 and 18, Cre8ion will present "Fluff," a quirky celebration of lost toys that mixes sound, story and video. And on May 24, festival favorite Nori Sawa will return with the U.S. premiere of "Kaguya: The Bamboo Princess and other Stories," which depicts the 10th-century folk tale of a Japanese princess through the use of puppets, masks, music and physical theater.

In addition to international performances, the festival is offering readings with two renowned children's authors, with tickets still available. On May 10, Timothy Basil Ering, illustrator of the Newbery Medal winner "The Tale of Despereaux," will read from his newest work, "The Almost Fearless Hamilton Squidlegger," and create original illustrations. The work tells the tale of a boy overcoming his bedtime fears with help from Dad.

Best-selling author Jon Scieszka, who has penned more than 25 children's books including "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," will read from his latest book, "Battle Bunny," on May 18.

"There are numerous ways to engage in the festival this year, including two new children's author events, and we're thrilled to offer these cultural opportunities to children and families," says Julia Mayer, Chicago Humanities Festival's assistant director of programming and performance.

This year's event marks the 15th year of presenting original performances from across the globe. Each year, the International Children's Theater Festival serves more than 7,000 people, including more than 5,000 students and teachers in the Chicago area.

And each year, the event has grown, with more offerings in 2014 than ever before, organizers say. Though the fest's core has always been performances, offerings such as children's readings and hands-on workshops (this year's festival has a Lego animation workshop and a shadow puppet workshop, both of which have sold out) help engage new audiences.

"We're just looking at ways to have a more full and robust festival experience," said Mayer. "Parents are always looking for exciting new things to do with their kids."

Organizers have sought inspiration from children's theater festivals in Europe and Canada.

The festival attracts families who are looking to broaden their cultural horizons, as well as adults who enjoy more traditional musical theater. Over time, organizers said, they've seen an increase in adult-only ticket buyers. "Adults are coming without kids," Mayer said. "Over the last several years, there's a recognition, a hunger, in the theater community for work that's whimsical and playful. These programs have a mass appeal. Adults feel very enriched by the experience."

She hopes all guests leave feeling inspired, particularly children who are experiencing theater for the first time. For them, the shows can be a "magical shared experience," she said, encouraging them to engage in new ideas and sparking a curiosity about the world around them and who they are as individuals.

"Having these opportunities to see something unexpected and exciting can really open doors for kids," she said. "For us, there's a very clear connection."

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