One Singular Sensation

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This local children’s theater company is making waves throughout the Bay Area.

By Matt Larson

Providing educational theater classes at more than 10 communities in the Bay Area and collectively serve more than 72,000 children and adults per year, Bay Area Children’s Theatre (BACT) is seemingly everywhere these days. Founded in 2004 by five arts educators with a mere $250, BACT is now celebrating its 13th season, with all of their main stage productions designed specifically to engage young audiences. So, how do they do it?

“The community support from day one has been incredible,” said Executive Director Nina Meehan, who is also one of BACT’s founding members. “All of our growth has been because communities have embraced who we are and what we do.” They believe it’s important to provide theatrical performances for children of every age, and for 13 years now the Bay Area community has been supporting that.

BACT is unique in that they specialize primarily in producing live adaptations of children’s literature. Sometimes they perform previously adapted plays, such as Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play! opening on April 9th. Other times, like for their current show (at this writing) Bad Kitty On Stage!, they contact the author, hire a playwright and commission the project all themselves.

While the main stage performances are comprised of adult actors, children have plenty of opportunities to perform as well via BACT’s many musical theater classes provided throughout the Bay. “We are a child-focused organization,” said Meehan, noting that BACT isn’t here to transform your child into the next Broadway star—though if that happens, great!—but their efforts go a bit deeper. “Our primary goal is to have a program that helps children build self-confidence; that helps them work together as a team and build an ensemble,” Meehan explains. “So the next time that a child has a book report they have to deliver in class, they know how to stand up in front of a group of people and express themselves with clarity.” Just one of many examples of BACT’s overarching educational goals.

One of the many places in the Bay Area where BACT is making an impact is at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito, providing 12 classes a year and serving 120 kids per session. Classes are organized into three sections: grades K/1, 2-5, and 5-8, each with it’s own theatrical focus. For example, the oldest group, also known as the Next Stage Performers, will be focusing on dancing, singing and acting as ancient Greek gods in Tales of Olympus, Jr. this spring.

Another West County endeavor for BACT is at Valley View Elementary School in Richmond. They’ve just begun a very innovative program called Story Explorers. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the goal of this project is to do a show in which the story is created by, and for, children living with special needs. Currently BACT has a teaching artist working with Valley View Elementary in their special needs classroom engaging students in curriculum that is designed for them to tell their stories—either visually, through movement, or with words. BACT has also commissioned a playwright who will take those stories and hence construct a show to be performed for the children next year.

BACT may be one of the busiest theater companies around. Their main stage plays generally tour between Berkeley, San Ramon and Pleasanton (they’ve also done national tours). In addition to El Cerrito, BACT provides musical theatre classes in the cities of Orinda and Lafayette, their home base in Oakland, and more. They’ve also recently expanded to San Francisco. This year, for the first time ever, they’re producing a show designed specifically for children as young as 6 months to 4 years old—a very immersive, highly interactive theatrical experience called Blue Kaboom. And they’re already planning their 14th season which begins the weekend after their 13th season ends.

Their success has been based greatly in part to communities requesting their services. “Wherever the school has a need, if they want to have an after-school musical theater program—we can help provide that for them,” Meehan says. So don’t hesitate to ask them to become even busier.

To audition, sign your child up for classes, volunteer, or request a musical theater program in your neck of the woods, contact Bay Area Children’s Theatre at (510) 296-4433 or visit http://www.bactheatre.org. And don’t forget, theater isn’t just for kids, Meehan reminds us. “People need the arts as part of their life from the diaper to adulthood!”

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