Storybook Theatre is a Theatre With Heart


Nancy Dobbs Owen

Barbara Mallory and Lloyd Schwartz are two of the most delightful people that you could ever meet. Though this might be expected of the couple who founded and continue to run the most successful children's theater company in Los Angeles, it is somewhat unexpected coming from Hollywood royalty! They are so disarming and unassuming that it is a joyous surprise. We enjoyed a meandering conversation seated in the house of the historic theater on Cahuenga Blvd. near Universal Studios, that Storybook Theatre calls home.

Theatre West was founded by movie star Betty Garrett in 1962. It is an internationally acclaimed non-profit organization and is the oldest continually running theatre company in Los Angeles. They have earned countless accolades including Tony Awards, Obies, Ovations Award Nominations, 9 LA Drama Critics Awards, Valley Theatre Awards, 7 NAACP Image Awards, and over 130 Drama-Logue Awards. Many shows have transferred to larger venues, in both Los Angeles and in New York. Most recent was The Babies, directed by Lloyd and starring Barbara, which ran from October 2016 through the first week of January 2017. In addition to creating awesome work, they support actors, paying Equity rates and helping many actors earn their cards through the points system.

Storybook Theatre was founded 36 years ago by Barbara and Lloyd when they realized that the Los Angeles Theatre community had nothing for their young sons. Lloyd was already an established writer and director and they were confident that they could create something worthwhile. Their first show was Little Red Riding Hood, which they staged at Studio City Park. They made a few mistakes; the wolf was too scary and the kids ran away at first, but overall it  was a huge success, earning over $2,000 with a ticket price of only $4.00. They were members of Theatre West and management invited them to partner with the theater and the rest is, as they say in fairy tales, a happily ever after!

Storybook Theatre has a very specific mission: They present non-threatening, interactive musical theater appropriate for children 3-9 years old. Their goal is “to be everyone's first theatrical experience.” The shows are funny and sweet, with lots of singing and dancing and interplay between the stage and audience. Charming stories abound. One little boy fell in love with Little Red Riding Hood, attending every performance of the run. On the last day, he presented her with flowers, candies and a marriage proposal (no word on her answer). When Aladdin asked what people would wish for, one little girl yelled out “that Josh would love me.” (no word on that outcome either....). Many kids come back over and over, telling staff that “I love this movie.” Grown ups who attended the theater as children are now bringing their own kids in for their first theatrical experience.

There is a formula to the plays. The lights stay up the whole time to keep the kids from being scared of the dark. To avoid the mistake made in that early production of Little Red Riding Hood, the villain always introduces themselves before the show, is always a misunderstood rather than evil force and always reforms by the end. The plays are interactive, with the audience becoming a part of the story in various ways from dancing in their seats to becoming actual characters onstage. As Lloyd and Barbara explain, “The actors present the play but the audience is a willing participant and so a lot of times the actors look to the audience for approval, asking do you think I should do this, do you think I should do that? We explain to the actors that the audience is smarter than you are and everyone in it is five!” There are always chases! They keep the famous beats, but take out the violence. It's often the kid's first play so sometimes the conflict is just getting into the theater. You don't want the play itself to be traumatic.

There are over eighteen plays in rotation at Storybook Theatre. Shows are reassessed every time they are mounted. For instance, during a recent performance of Sleeping Beauty, the issue of consent came up. Lloyd shares, “The prince comes in and asks the audience, 'what should I do', and the kids yell 'kiss her, kiss her!' He responds, 'but she is sleeping, you should only kiss people who you know want to be kissed' and the audience broke into applause, so he said, 'what should I do?' The princess jumped up and said 'kiss me already!'” They review plays over and over, looking through them really carefully to make sure that the plays are teaching appropriate lessons. In the Ugly Duckling, they added a line to decrease bullying, having the mom duck say, “words matter.” In Jack and the Beanstalk, they encourage kids to eat their veggies by having Jack eat the beans!

Outreach and community action fuel Storybook Theatre. Barbara states it beautifully, “We want to be used...I envy fame because if you have fame you can use it for something good, that is joyous. I don't personally have that but we have the theater, where we want people to use us.”

The list of people who “use” the theater is long! Matt Asner's Autism Speaks Foundation, one of the world's leading science and advocacy organizations, has recently partnered up with Storybook Theatre. They also work with Grandparents as Parents, helping bridge that gap. Storybook Theatre is actively looking into additional ways to work with special needs kids, including bringing a therapist onboard. They also go into the community, doing workshops in schools and camps. There are discounts, free tickets, and fundraising partnerships. Barbara said once again, ”People want to know that the theater is doing something for the community, that it is not just actors acting.” When they see that, they will match you. For example, Universal paid for title one schools to bus kids to the theater. The busses are so expensive that even when tickets are free, the cost can be prohibitive.

Lloyd shared some concrete examples of how these plays stimulate learning and acceptance. Two kids have spoken for the first time in the theater. One occasion really stands out to Lloyd. He recounts how at a performance of Little Red Riding Hood, a little boy said to the wolf, “You leave her alone, you leave her alone.” It was the first time that he had spoken. The physicality and musicality of the shows work really well for kids with special needs. They will bring wheelchairs on to the stage and give them lines. Because lights and sounds are kept to a minimum, kids with auditory and light sensitivity are still able to enjoy the shows.

Storybook Theatre opens its new version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on October 20. The show will run through March 2, 2019. Shows are Saturdays at 1 pm. This promises to be a fun filled version of the play with lots of singing, dancing, audience participation, and a funny witch with a handsome prince. The children in the audience become the seven dwarfs who help rescue Snow White. The book by Scott Martin, lyrics by Rob Meurer, with music composed by Richard Berent. The production is directed by David P. Johnson and produced by Barbara Mallory. Katie Katini stars as Snow White. Reservations: (818) 761-2203. Online ticketing: TheatreWest.org.

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