It was soul-searching time for the Mark Taper Forum’s acclaimed youth company P.L.A.Y. (Performing for Los Angeles Youth) when it lost its respected longtime artistic director Peter Brosius in 1995, after 13 years under his guidance.
P.L.A.Y.'s mission to bring quality theater to schools has always been shaped by the passions and commitment of its artistic leader. Without that individual vision, and with a continuous struggle for funding, there were concerns about the company’s future.
Surprisingly, the company, although still without a replacement for Brosius, has good reason to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. With renewed growth and purpose, and aided by the Center Stage fund-raising group, P.L.A.Y. has been exploring new ways to engage teachers and students in the art of theater and the written word. It has also just begun its most ambitious public run to date of one of its touring school shows, “Bocon!”
This reprise of Lisa Loomer’s acclaimed play about a young political refugee’s mythic flight north is a legacy of Brosius, who went on to become the artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. The play has just begun an eight-week tour of elementary and middle schools; its weekend shows for the general public begin today at Pasadena Children’s Center for the Arts.
“I said, ‘It’s our 25th; let’s look at the work that we’ve done and bring back something that was one of our shining pieces,’ ” P.L.A.Y.'s coordinating producer, Dolores Chavez, said of “Bocon!”
“We thought we could revisit it and take it to its next step and have it be a good way to talk about the words ‘migration’ and ‘immigration,’ ” she said. “It’s an issue our schools are having to face at this point, and teachers may or may not have the words to talk about it.”
The production is only one facet of P.L.A.Y., an umbrella organization for many Taper programs for kindergarten through high school youth.
Under the auspices of the Young Audiences Project, more than 3,000 high school students will go to the Taper in March to see Athol Fugard’s “Valley Song” and take a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
Also, there is a new emphasis on commissions for Taper-generated youth plays, which now include a Kelly Stuart work about girls and math anxiety, scheduled for 1998, and two other commissions by Latina poets and a Native American writer.
P.L.A.Y. is also instituting a council of teenage journalists who will learn to write about theater for their school newspapers.
With the Taper’s focus on the written word and the writing of plays, “we think literacy is a natural connection for us,” said Corey Madden, Taper associate artistic director and P.L.A.Y.'s advisor. “And understanding how to think about theater is an important part of what makes a good audience,” she said.
Another innovation is a teacher resource video created for “Bocon!'s” tour to reach large numbers of teachers and help them prepare their students for the playgoing experience. Shot documentary-style, it spotlights the playwright, designers, actors and others involved in the production and outlines the concerns, dramatic ideas and visual aspects of the show.
“We think it’s a big improvement in the program,” Madden said. “It’s just the kind of tool that we really need to create a starting place for kids and for teachers.”
After Brosius’ departure, and during the continuing process of stock-taking, the Taper has been focusing on identifying the youth company’s “core values” and the needs of the schools, Madden said.
“We felt we were doing a good job of making a play to be proud of,” she said. “But we also wanted to make some adaptations that had to do with changes in the school environment, funding and connecting to curriculum and the need for kids to have enriched experiences when they were learning.”
Gordon Davidson, the Taper’s artistic director, said the reason P.L.A.Y. didn’t jump into hiring another artistic director was because “we wanted to stabilize the organization and [assess] how we do what we do, what audiences are we serving, what we can do best.
“I think we’ve come through stage one,” he said, although P.L.A.Y. is still “treading a careful line” regarding funding. “We’re pretty sure we can raise the money for this year, then we gotta start all over again next year.”
Davidson concurred with Madden and Chavez that Brosius’ spirit still infuses the program. “Absolutely. I go back even further,” he said. “I find that it’s also John Dennis [the youth company’s first artistic director]. There’s an incredible linkage . . . and quite a bit of continuity, even though the leadership has changed, evolved.
“It’s good we didn’t have to pack up our tent and go away.”
* “Bocon!,” Pasadena Children’s Center for the Arts, 325 S. Oak Knoll Ave., today, noon, free; Natural History Museum, Exposition Park, next Saturday, 11 a.m. Free. Information on these and other performances: (213) 972-7674.