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LA HABRA MUSEUM : PLAY TIME IS PLAYTIME AT KIDS’ EXHIBIT

For parents who groan that children’s entertainment too often comes down to violent kiddie cartoons, nasty music videos or brain-dead prime-time TV, the La Habra Children’s Museum has a suggestion: Take them to the theater.

To emphasize its point, the museum is offering the “Rising Stars” exhibit through Sept. 12. The program is designed to introduce youngsters to drama. It includes various theater visuals ranging from play posters to stage props and scenery and a hands-on approach that allows kids to wear makeup and myriad costumes and to act out impromptu scenes.

“We want to expose them to live theater because, in so many ways, it gets them to use their imaginations,” said Catherine Michaels, the museum director. “Most children are only exposed to television and videos, which are numbing . . . but the experience of seeing actors perform and (the children) feeling involved can really get their imaginations going.”

The exhibit is intended to appeal to elementary school children in the 4-to-12-year-old range, the museum’s usual target audience. With such a young group, the museum naturally has a challenge making everything accessible, said Melissa Banning, the assistant director and program organizer.

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This is achieved primarily by creating an action-oriented environment that is especially attractive to smaller children, she said. Besides the hundreds of costumes, masks and the many makeup variations available, youngsters can stage their own puppet shows, engage in skits or just stroll about, gawking at the gaily colored paraphernalia.

Most of the displays are authentic and on loan from such local theater groups as South Coast Repertory, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Fullerton Civic Light Opera and Opera Pacific. SCR, for example, donated much of the painted background from its recent “Orange Trees” youth show.

The older children also find the atmosphere stimulating, Banning said, but if they get bored, there are always docents on hand to answer questions or explain facets of the theater.

Because one of the exhibit’s goals is to inspire participation as well as appreciation, the docents describe the many jobs associated with a production. That means the even less glamorous, but no less significant, roles from stagehand to set designer are given attention, Banning said.

“The idea is to give them a working knowledge of theater, the entire process of it,” she said. “With set design, we take them from the sketch to the model to the final set. We would like them to realize that creating a show comes from combining many different elements.

“There’s a little bit of looking at career possibilities, too. Of course, the very young don’t see this, but some of the older children who like to dabble (in crafts or mechanical hobbies) can see that the theater can use carpenters or electricians.”

Another area touched on is what Michaels called “stage etiquette.” To prepare the youngsters for a night at the theater, which may be a somewhat more serious and attentive experience than they are used to, the docents show that watching a play is not the same as watching the living room TV.

“Discipline is important, and we let them know that,” Michaels said. “They should know how to behave if their parents take them to the Performing Arts Center or SCR.”

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Theater manners may be one of the exhibit’s focuses, but during a recent visit the atmosphere was more one of organized chaos than anything else.

The children ran from the makeup booth to the costume rack to the dressing room (some were less modest, deciding to make the quick change between the racks) to the small stage, where they did just about anything they wanted.

Jason Davis, 9, from Exeter, wearing a “Max Headroom” T-shirt, ambled about with a director’s megaphone more than half his size. The chunky boy yodeled a few times, then yelled, “Quiet on the set!” but nobody took much notice.

Certainly not Paul Franco, 8, from Brea, who stood off to the side, looking pleased in his natty fox costume. While the other youngsters made noise on stage, Paul seemed to be waiting for something. His cue?

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“What’s a cue?” he replied. “I’m waiting for my mom, she’s over there with my sister, who’s getting makeup. . . . Sure, I like (the exhibit); I like being a fox.”

Overhearing this, Alicia Stephens, a well-tanned 11-year-old from Fullerton, broke in:

“You’re not a fox,” she said, indicating that perhaps even miniature theater critics have a place in this exhibit. “You’re a dog. Can’t you tell?”

The museum , at 301 S. Euclid St., La Habra , holds tours on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and is also open to the general public during these times. A lecture series on the theater is being offered at noon on most Saturdays through Aug. 29. Information: (213) 905-9793.

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