A second floor rehearsal room at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre came alive last week, with the debut of its Playhouse Theater, which was designed and fitted to toddlers.
Its walls, once bare, now draw in little ones with its large trees and whimsical forest look -- created by Courtney O'Neill, a prominent set designer in Chicago -- while the playhouse itself tantalizes them with its small stage, limited furniture and props, and all wrapped in the confines of the playhouse.
The mission of the new Playhouse Theater is simple, says Joe Keefe, executive director of the Metropolis: to engage children by activating their imaginations through story, movement and playfulness.
"We've tried to create a warm and inviting environment," Keefe says. "Literally, this Metropolis Playhouse is a new theater devoted to children ages 2½ to 6 years, and all scaled to young people in a setting that will spark their imagination.
"In an age where digital screens dominate children's attention, the Playhouse stimulates young minds through entertaining and dynamic educational techniques," Keefe added. "It's human interaction in story and play, rather than through digital media."
Keefe and his staff unveiled the Playhouse last week to its donors, who had donated nearly $25,000 toward the initiative at last year's Metropolis gala.
"There was no life in this room before. Now look at it," said Lauree Harp of Arlington Heights, a donor and volunteer at the theater. "I love it. Anything that encourages creativity, participation and improvisation is a great thing."
Marty Pfister and his wife, Maria, of Arlington Heights were among the first to arrive. Like other donors, they applauded the theater's outreach to children.
"Kids just love to perform," Marty Pfister said. "They see so much of it on TV. This gives them a platform."
Another donor was Carol Cohen of Long Grove, who formerly worked as a professional costumer and now serves as the executive director of the Haven Theatre Company in Chicago. She said she believes strongly that it's never too early to expose children to the arts.
"Every life experience is a learning moment for small children," Cohen said. "The fact that the Metropolis has the space and staff to help children experience drama and music through play, is a real opportunity for growth of character."
Keefe believes the Metropolis Playhouse is one of the only theater programs specifically geared for toddlers in the area.
"Across the country, a few theaters have embraced this important audience," Keefe says, "and Emerald City Theatre in Chicago has been a strong advocate for these new horizons."
Metropolis officials already offer a wide variety of classes and performance camps for children, but now they will add programming for toddlers through its Playhouse Theater as well. Information is available on its website, www.metropolisarts.com.
Ironically, this year's gala takes place on Saturday, April 28, at Arlington International Racecourse, where they will stay with their outreach to children as their "fund-a-cause" campaign this year. Supporters will have the chance to contribute to their "Stories in Action" programming, where Metropolis officials coordinate their shows for young audiences to books that children are reading in school.
Randal Ann Klaproth, development director for Metropolis, points to the staging of "Frindle," by Andrew Clements, which has become an annual favorite for school groups. She adds that last year's Stories in Action drew more than 12,000 schoolchildren.
"A lot of times, these kids are seeing a live theater performance for the first time," Klaproth adds. "We see that as part of our mission, to make the arts accessible to all ages."
Tickets to the gala, which starts at 5 p.m. and includes drinks, dinner, dessert, performances, raffles, auctions and an after party, start at $130 per person. For details or tickets, call (847) 577-2121 or visit the website.