After a performance of Colin Thomas' "One Thousand Cranes" at the recent Philadelphia International Theatre Festival for Children, one parent said: "That was incredible. I've never seen children's theater like that before."

The play was an eye-opener for many adults who may have thought that children's theater meant clowns and fairy tales.

The Philadelphia festival drew an estimated 20,000 adults and children to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center. Ten professional groups from Austria, Canada, England, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United States offered 68 world-class performances.

For many of the countries represented in the festival, arts are a part of life for all ages and are government subsidized. Young people's theater festivals there are a tradition. Not so in the United States, where keeping the arts alive, let alone sparking an interest in the arts for children, is a constant struggle.

But things are slowly changing and a growing network of children's theater festivals around the United States are reminding parents that live entertainment can be an alternative to movies and TV.

Seeing the creative efforts of other countries was vital and energizing, although this cozy five-day festival played it safe with mime, music and circus rather than more fully mounted plays. There were two exceptions.

An American company, the Mark Taper Forum's Improvisational Theatre Project, brought the most thoughtful and creatively well-realized theatrical production to Philadelphia this year, and demonstrated emphatically how valuable children's theater can be. "One Thousand Cranes," which toured Los Angeles in early spring, kept audiences hushed and involved. Confronting a child's fear of nuclear war, the play, staged with exquisite simplicity, offered its message of hope without sacrificing artistic subtlety. (The Lincoln Center Library just completed a taping of the play for its national archives.)

The musical "Getting Through" tackled the issue of feminism but was a major disappointment. Presented by the Women's Company of England's Theater Centre, the well-mounted musical started out with a bounce but sagged midway under the weight of its own didacticism and excruciating stereotypes. Nicola Kathrens, an irresistibly fey actress, played a young girl ostracized at school by teachers and students for wanting to take shop, for wanting to learn about women in history, for not being interested in boys. Two teachers who support her are fired; fascistic bully boys (the whole cast is female) destroy a ham radio she builds in hopes of finding a friend.

Capturing a child's interest, including one of the most difficult audiences--12- and 13-year-olds intent on being "cool"--requires strong creative energy. Switzerland's Heinz Meier, known as "Pello," had plenty.

Into the din created by loud, rude young teen-agers in the small Annenberg Studio Theatre came Pello and his quiet "Maskenschau"--mask performance.

Wearing amorphous "neutral" masks, beautifully crafted leather masks of the commedia dell'arte, novelty noses, mustaches and beards, and moving with understated body movements, Pello uniquely interpreted a fastidious lady feeding birds in the park, a querulous harridan addressing the audience with a spate of Italian and a sour man courting a giddy young woman.

Audience oohs and ahs greeted the Illusions of the Orient troupe from Taiwan as they charmed viewers with balancing tricks atop stacks of chairs, balls and bottles.

Master magician Chen Liu made generic tricks--a scarf that became an umbrella, bits of paper made whole again, a woman who materialized from nowhere--new and infinitely astounding.

Fred Penner, one of Canada's most successful children's song artists, was popular but out of place. Penner's familiar nursery school songs and humorous patter, met with pleased recognition and ready participation from toddlers, was too narrowly focused to hold the interest of those older.

(Annenberg director of programming Katherine Marshall acknowledged the composition of the festival was not entirely satisfactory.

("I feel that was our biggest weakness," she said. "We offered wonderful mimes and musicians, the quality was excellent, but we lacked a dance company and would have liked one or two more plays." Marshall said she had seen and rejected several plays. "I would rather have a first-class mime or storyteller than compromise on quality.")

There was nothing watered down about Ron Short and Tom Bledsoe of Kentucky's Roadside Theatre. The pair swept into their unlikely performance space--an imposing old Tabernacle Church with endless stained-glass windows and carved stone arches--like a blast of fresh mountain air. Bringing a theatrical sensibility to down-home songs and stories from the Appalachians, the performers quickly dispelled the cliche of country quaintness. A blood-curdling version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" involving a Hairy Man, swamp snakes and a one-eyed giant raised a few older eyebrows as it unfolded.

(Roadside Theatre is scheduled to appear, with a larger ensemble, in the L.A. Arts Festival in September, performing a new dramatic musical titled "South of the Mountain.")

Canada's crowd-pleasing La Troupe Circus, a six-member ensemble, tumbled, juggled and clowned. One performer transformed circus into theater with his finely drawn Chaplinesque clown, whose childlike pride in his own antics-- "ta-dah!"-- was unexpectedly moving.

Less theater than a low-key history lesson, Kim and Reggie Harris' "Music and the Underground Railroad," told through lecture and song, celebrated slaves who won their freedom. The Harrises' vibrant voices gave life to the old slave songs with their secret codes, pulling the audience into a pleasurable sing-along.

Some people blanch at the thought of mime, but Austria's Walter Bartussek wasn't interested in doing a silent star turn. After a brief lecture-demonstration of classic mime, Bartussek had 18 eager child volunteers on stage to play props in the simple story of a man getting up in the morning.

Each child played a mirror, a towel, a bed, an alarm clock, a razor and more. The action bordered on hilarious when the audience, supplying sound effects, realized it could make the telephone ring each time Bartussek was in the shower. Neither spectator nor participant was ready for the show to end.

The U.S. Practical Cats theater company's Alice Eve Cohen gambled with a solo piece called "Heads and Tales." Using sweeping gestures and body movements--her only prop a green scarf--Cohen told the story of "The Balinese Frog Prince" with sly humor and sharp character definition.

Cohen's second tale, "The Minotaur," a soliloquy delivered in prose and song, lost the audience.

Artists in the United States have long sought recognition of children's theater as real theater, whether issue-oriented or sheer fantasy. More of it needs to be seen as possessing an artistic and social voice, a voice able to remain longer in the consciousness than a moment of appreciation for an acrobat's skill, however pleasurable that moment might be.

The artists involved in the festival had their own reactions. Seminars sponsored by the Annenberg Center, presented in cooperation with the International Assn. of Theatre for Children and Youth, and informal social gatherings, afforded an opportunity for mutual admiration and critical appraisal.

One playwright, looking forward to the closing night cast party, said with relish, "That's when we trash each other's shows."

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