Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead

Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead

Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead

Music by Nathaniel Stookey

Conceived for the stage by
Lemony Snicket
Phantom Limb
(Jessica Grindstaff & Erik Sanko, Artistic Directors)
Tony Taccone
& Geoff Hoyle

Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Roda Theatre
November 26, 2010–January 16, 2011
World Premiere

Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission

The show must go on? But the actor is mute, the director is crying, the dancer is lazy—and the composer is dead! This holiday season, Berkeley Rep presents a deliciously silly world premiere from beloved Bay Area artists. Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead features text by bestselling author Lemony Snicket and a score by (living) composer Nathaniel Stookey. It’s a new theatrical adaptation of this wildly popular piece. Tony Taccone’s raucous production unleashes laughs through classic clowning and plenty of uppity puppets from the pioneering Phantom Limb Company (Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, Co-Artistic Directors). When Geoff Hoyle pops up as an outlandish inspector bent on solving a murderous riddle, the show crescendos into comic absurdity. To the delight of children and adults alike, Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead comes alive on stage.

Creative team

Lemony Snicket · Author
Nathaniel Stookey · Composer
Tony Taccone · Director
Phantom Limb Company—Erik Sanko & Jessica Grindstaff · Set / Costume Design / Puppetry
Alexander Nichols · Lighting / Projection Design
James LeBrecht · Sound Design
Lisa Cook · Film Producer (The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater)
Kim Bromley · Film Producer (The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater)
Martin Rosenberg · Director of Photography
Matthew Compton · Underscoring
Asa Taccone · Underscoring
San Francisco Symphony · Originally Commissioned and Performed Recorded Music
Edwin Outwater · Conductor
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Kimberly Mark Webb · Assistant Stage Manager
Jennifer M. Wills · Assistant Director
Kimi Okada · Choreographic Consultant

Cast

Geoff Hoyle

Puppeteers

Jenny Campbell
Frankie Cordero
Marta Mozelle MacRostie
Edouard Sanko
Ronny Wasserstrom

Oliver Dazell (The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater)
Erik Sanko (The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater)

Additional voices

Bettina Devin
Roger L. Jackson
Jarion Monroe
Asher Terra
Erin-Kate Whitcomb

“It’s a movie. It’s a vaudeville act. It’s a concert. It’s a puppet show. Actually, it’s all of the above and something all its own. Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead, a new work that opened Thursday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, isn’t quite a play but a curiously engaging concoction of theater, film and musical elements as a genially offbeat arts primer. As performed by master comic Geoff Hoyle and a magnificent ensemble of marionettes and all kinds of other puppets, it’s a funny and often ingenious children’s entertainment.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Wonderful…Visual flourishes are the meat and potatoes of Composer. The set, designed by [Jessica] Grindstaff and [Erik] Sanko, is a pop-out book that keeps unfolding…[Geoff] Hoyle is majestic both as the charming host and crime-solver. Arrive with a child’s sense of wonderment; don’t go if you can’t stomach a lot of ooh-ing and aaah-ing.”—East Bay Express

“Run across the bridge, any bridge, to get to Berkeley Rep, which here means “a theater company willing to take risks certain to destroy the world as we know it,” in order to catch the fantastic World Premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead.”—SF-TheaterBlog

“Hilarious characters, visual delights, stage magic and loads of laughs…It’s a perfect family show for the holidays. And I loved it.”—KGO-AM

“Fun for whole family…A delightful piece of theater…An opportunity for all of us to laugh our clenched bottoms off as we excuse the hour-long show as a delightfully clever introduction to classical music…As wildly funny as it is perverse. Bay Area comic treasure Geoff Hoyle is the only human being on a stage populated by an assortment of strange puppets.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

“A kids’ show can only be called a complete success if it manages to entertain the adults who inevitably serve as chaperones. On that score, The Composer is Dead is completely successful, combining visual panache with intelligent verbal humor in a way that will charm just about anybody right out of their pants…If you happen to have any sharp, imaginative children lying around the house, or maybe just a friend who could use a macabre kick this holiday season, take any and all to see The Composer is Dead.”—SF Weekly

“Part Monty Python’s Flying Circus, part Cirque du Soleil, and part Tim Burton, The Composer Is Dead is a damn impressive amalgam of puppetry and theater, with a lovely symphonic soundtrack to boot…Anyone looking to spend a swell hour reliving a child’s wonder by way of some extraordinarily life-like and expert puppetry, get your tickets now.”—SFist

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

For the past 10 years or so, we’ve been conducting an extraordinary experiment at Berkeley Rep. Simply put, we’ve been trying to expand the kind of work we present on our stage. While we still love the “well-made play” (which every generation defines for itself with absolute certainty and usually in direct opposition to the preceding generation), we also love work that does not subscribe to any rules save the ones invented to make it successful. From American Idiot to Aurélia’s Oratorio, from Tiny Kushner to after the quake, we have produced any number of plays that have their own distinct, imaginative logic.

Which brings us to Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead. The structure consists of an opening monologue performed by a live clown with the assistance of a sock puppet, followed by an interactive film featuring an ensemble of demented marionettes and concludes with a symphonic mystery play that dabbles in comic surrealism. If it sounds ambitious, it is. If it sounds challenging, most certainly. If it sounds mad, absolutely. But it’s mad in the best possible sense. Mad in a way that makes utter sense out of the utterly nonsensical—in a way that is completely irresistible.

Blame it all on Lemony Snicket, one of the most remarkable and talented rapscallions ever to walk through our doors. Armed with a wicked sense of humor and enough charm to ward off the devil, the man knows how to make considerable professional mischief. His work is marked by a wild love of language and the belief that children are far more sane than adults, and that we’d all be better off if we loosened a few of our proverbial screws and remembered what the world felt like when we were kids. Hint: It was a lot more creative and immeasurably more fun. I have to say, his argument is more than compelling.

Mr. Snicket has emboldened his worldview by partnering with Phantom Limb’s Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, the eccentric designers who brilliantly envisioned the sets and puppets. Add Nathaniel Stookey (the composer for the original piece and our play), Matthew Compton and Asa Taccone (the composers for our movie), Geoff Hoyle (performer extraordinaire) and a host of other great designers to the mix, and there you have it: another weird evening at Berkeley Rep that defies traditional logic. We hope it brings you nothing but delight.

Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

When I was growing up in Chicago, my parents used to take me to the remarkable Kungsholm Puppet Opera. While watching those seemingly miraculous marionettes, I was first introduced to The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. I have vivid memories of that small proscenium arch, of becoming completely engrossed in those stories, in the music and in the world of those smaller-than-life performers. It has been more than 40 years since I sat in that darkened room between my mother and father, and yet I rarely fail to think of those puppets when I listen to Mozart’s operas. I sometimes wonder how it was possible that Don Giovanni, with its dark and tortured themes, could have spoken to this small child. I can only assume that it had something to do with the magical whimsy of those puppets.

With Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead, all those memories are once again vivid. I find it delightfully satisfying that Lemony Snicket’s friendship with Nathaniel Stookey should have resulted in a story that introduces a new generation to the glories of music. I’m proud that we could play a part in furthering this vision. Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko of Phantom Limb have created a richly imagined “smaller than life world” that Tony Taccone and Geoff Hoyle can fill with their own kind of magic.

Daniel and Nathaniel were inspired to write Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead by their urgent desire to create a next generation of music lovers. Berkeley Rep has taken on this project out of an equally urgent impulse to create a next generation of theatre lovers. In fact, Composer is part of a growing body of work we’ve presented, including Brundibar, Aurélia’s Oratorio, The Arabian Nights and Argonautika, that is smart, sophisticated and accessible to people of multiple generations. It is our fervent hope and goal that those of you who are devoted cultural omnivores will take advantage of this production to share the pleasure of living, breathing theatre with a generation of future culture vultures.

On behalf of all of us at Berkeley Rep, we wish you a very happy holiday season.

Susan Medak

Lemony Snicket’s alter ego

By Madeleine Oldham

If someone wanted to create an award for Most Irreverent Public Figure, Daniel Handler would almost surely run away with it—perhaps literally, but more likely legitimately. Handler’s flippantly sharp wit has helped him to project a winning combination of mischief and charm, and yet still manage to come across as remarkably sincere. Using his tremendous gifts of humor, language, curiosity and imagination to build a solid track record as somewhat of a contemporary renaissance man, he’s carved out a completely unique professional life for himself.

For a man who does not seem interested in playing by the rules, Handler has achieved a startling amount of success. If he wanted to write a book, he wrote it, whether or not it stood a good chance of getting published. He had already finished writing his second novel before getting the green light for the first. (His debut novel, The Basic Eight, was rejected 37 times before anyone agreed to take it on.) He goes after what he wants without regard for how things are supposed to be done. For example, his latest book, 13 Words, came about because he wanted to work with illustrator Maira Kalman, whom he greatly admired. He did not wait for this collaboration to be agreed upon ahead of time, however: “The idea was to write a manuscript and then charm her into illustrating it.” Which is just what he did.

Handler never set out to write for children. While struggling to get his novel-writing career off the ground, he was approached by a Canadian editor who suggested they meet to discuss Handler’s interest in telling stories for young people. Over cocktails, he pitched a dark, gothic tale of orphaned children making their way through a world where terrible things kept befalling them. He was convinced she would hate the idea and that would be that. When she responded with encouragement and interest, Handler responded in turn with feelings of disappointment in the editor’s low tolerance for alcohol, which he assumed to be the only logical explanation for her enthusiasm. She called the next morning, asserting that she was completely sober, and, yes, still interested. And A Series of Unfortunate Events was born.

For the series, Handler adopted a pseudonym he’d been using since researching his first novel. He was gathering information from religious groups and right-wing political organizations, but didn’t want his real name on their mailing lists. He had to call himself something, and “Lemony Snicket” was the first thing that sprang to mind. It stuck, and went on to develop into a dour, vinegarish, perpetually vexed character who pens foreboding stories for children.

The editor asked Handler to come up with something for the book jacket that would grab the prospective reader’s attention and hopefully persuade a purchase. Handler looked at examples, which were full of melodramatic questions and exaggerated declarations, and could think of nothing suitable to say, convinced as he was that the books would not succeed. Inspiration struck as he was shopping in a pharmacy and noticed the warning labels on various toxic substances. He decided the only appropriate course of action would be to tell the truth as he saw it: that the books were filled with misery and the reader would do better to move on to something else. This strategy of cautioning people away from the books had the very opposite effect, and encompasses Handler’s particular blend of humor and doom. And, of course, it proved irresistible.

This same unassuming streak appears again and again as Handler talks about himself. When queried about whether his success as an author has gotten in the way of his musical career, Handler offers a typically self-deprecating response to the idea of his having a musical “career” at all: “I think it’s sort of like calling yourself an astronaut because you have a shiny suit.” Handler, who was a member of the San Francisco Boys Chorus as a child, plays the accordion with seminal indie-rock outfit The Magnetic Fields both live and on record. While not a household name in all circles, the band has an enormous following, and a gig with them is nothing to shake a stick at. The relationship came about in much the same way as the one with Maira Kalman—Handler admired the group’s work, and in particular that of its leader, Stephen Merritt, and pursued a collaboration with him. Handler not only convinced Merritt to work with him on developing a musical, but also garnered an invitation to join the band.

Handler has also ventured into the world of film. He’s seen two screenplays realized: Kill the Poor and Rick, both in 2003. And though he did not end up writing the screenplay that eventually became the adaptation of the first three A Series of Unfortunate Events books, he did, however write eight versions before someone else was brought in to finish it. In true surreptitious fashion, the DVD features a commentary track where Lemony Snicket expresses his deep displeasure to director Brad Silberling at how the film turned out.

When Handler is not making appearances to fill in for an “absent” Mr. Snicket, he lives with his wife and son in the city where he grew up: San Francisco. Handler has not let fame and fortune lift his feet too far off the ground. An active and engaged citizen, he has lent his voice to many a cause. He also tries to put his money where his mouth is, and in 2007 wrote an unusually frank narrative piece for the New York Times about what it’s like to have acquired a good deal of wealth and how he decides what to do with it.

Despite Handler’s leanings toward whimsy and quirk, he thinks deeply and makes very deliberate choices about how to live a worthwhile life: “I’m not a believer in predetermined fates, being rewarded for one’s efforts. I’m not a believer in karma. The reason why I try to be a good person is because I think it’s the right thing to do. If I commit fewer bad acts there will be fewer bad acts, maybe other people will join in committing fewer bad acts and in time there will be fewer and fewer of them.” Though sentiments like these may not be what people think of first about him, they are normal for the mindful, unpretentious Handler. He embodies what might be deemed “Irreverent Sincerity”—an oxymoron to live by.

The living canvas: the enduring power of the puppet

By Rachel Steinberg

This past August, one of America’s most beloved television personalities was welcomed into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. A little weathered with age but still wearing his characteristic goofy grin, he settled proudly into the prestigious museum, where to this day he greets the massive, multigenerational fan base he has accumulated since his television premiere in 1955. It’s been a long road to Kermit. In his 55-year lifespan, this creature made from an old coat and ping-pong balls established himself as an icon alongside presidents.

For centuries, humans have been fascinated by animating the inanimate, imbuing objects with life and meaning. Though today puppetry is often associated with children, the puppet has historically occupied such roles as religious idol, political propagandist and movie star.

As early as 5,000 years ago, people were creating and animating objects. Excavations in the Middle East have turned up a small herd of terra-cotta cattle with moveable heads, legs and tails. Two thousand years ago in India, two Hindu epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, formed the basis for puppet traditions that would eventually spread across Southeast Asia in the first years of the Common Era. Offspring of the Indian epics includes the wayang kulit, a shadow puppet theatre found on Bali and Java. The stories also inspired Java’s own wayang golek tradition, which contains elements of Hindu and Islamic spirituality and uses rod puppets manipulated by a respected master, who is ordained by a priest, to enact stories of nobles and gods. Some puppets are believed to possess a particular spiritual power and are kept apart from the others. A wayang golek performance is sometimes a day-long event attended by entire families and communities, often surrounding momentous life occasions from marriages to funerals.

Early puppetry was also found in China. One particular tale, penned circa 1000 BCE, tells of an unfortunate performer who, after flirting with a royal concubine, was sentenced to death for his misdeeds. The decision was reversed, however, when the performer in question was discovered to be not a live actor at all, but, in fact, a puppet. The influence of Chinese puppet arts spread to Vietnam and Korea, countries that would absorb the Chinese techniques and figures, in turn transforming them into new native traditions.

At the same time, one of Asia’s most important contributions to puppetry was developing indigenously within Japan’s borders. By the 16th century, Japanese artists had combined native Shinto puppet forms, popular storytelling and native instrumentation to create Bunraku. Though they began as relatively simple contraptions, Bunraku puppets became so complicated that multiple operators were required to manipulate one character. Unlike other forms, Bunraku put the puppeteers in full view of the audience, breaking the fourth wall well before Brecht and Meyerhold’s similar experiments more than a century later.

In Europe, puppets were used in both ancient Greek ritual as well as in popular entertainment venues as large as the Theatre of Dionysus. Despite protestations from officials that puppetry was a form of idolatry, Christians adopted performing objects as religious tools. Statues of Jesus and Mary were animated to bleed, weep or move. By the 15th and 16th centuries, Mystery and Miracle shows depicting the Assumption of the Virgin were commonly acted out by wooden figures attached to strings. This was a particularly popular practice in France, where the puppets soon came to be named Little Marys, or, in French, marionettes. In Italy, the commedia dell’arte’s Pulcinella evolved into a marionette named Polichinelle in Paris and, famously, Punch in England, who was later given a wife, Judy. One puppet show across from St. Paul’s church was enormously popular. It drew such a crowd that one anonymous person penned a letter to the Spectator lamenting that the show was responsible for a decrease in church attendance.

The 18th century also saw one of the first recorded instances of puppetry crossing the Atlantic. On November 16, 1776, George Washington entered a “Puppet Shew” into his account books. By the 19th century, puppet shows toured America. Some cities were home to permanent companies; San Francisco was home to a Sicilian marionette troupe by 1900. Not all, however, was well for puppetry in the era that brought us Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov, and a demand for realism and naturalism on stage. The new aesthetic favored the actor and his or her live body over even the most sophisticated human-made object. As such, puppetry was pushed further into the fringe, becoming more and more a marginalized form existing outside of the “legitimate” theatre. Some puppeteers were able to secure a place on the vaudeville bills; others turned to making shows for children.

It took almost 20 years before puppets would once again find themselves occupying significant American stages. At the center of this shift was Tony Sarg, considered by many to be the father of American puppetry. Sarg’s innovations included a marionette skeleton that could come apart as well as the giant, animated helium-filled balloons that would become a staple of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades. His puppets appeared in such popular Broadway and touring shows as Alice and Wonderland and Treasure Island. Puppetry in the late teens and early twenties was not, however, limited to the commercial theatre. In the second decade of the 20th century, the Little Theatre movement embraced the possibility of using puppets in their new theatres. These amateur artists rejected the commercial and instead were committed to producing artistically innovative work incorporating the freshest ideas from Europe. Greenwich Village’s famous Provincetown Players ran puppet shows alongside new work from Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell. The Chicago Little Theatre’s Ellen Van Volkenburg explicitly included puppet shows in the theatre’s programming and ran puppet scenography workshops. It is Van Volkenburg who is widely credited with the invention of the term puppeteer.

Surprisingly, in the midst of the Great Depression, more puppeteers were working in New York than had been previously employed across the country. Under the umbrella of the New Deal, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) employed thousands of out-of-work actors, directors and writers. Though most famous for its live, theatricalized versions of current events (Living Newspapers), another innovative FTP project was the Marionette Wing, a branch that employed puppeteers in 22 companies and presented more than 100 shows weekly across America throughout the late 1930s.

Though late-19th-century beliefs certainly suggested that puppetry was best suited for children’s fare, during wartime puppets were used specifically as political tools targeted at young audiences. Both the Nazis and Soviets created shows using puppetry to engage and indoctrinate children in political propaganda.

Puppetry soon began to embrace educational opportunities beyond politics. In 1955, Washington’s WRC-TV premiered a five-minute television show called Sam and Friends. Often running after the nightly news, the show consisted of a group of puppets who would act out comedic skits and lip syncs. One particularly popular character was a green creature of no specific genus named Kermit.

At a dinner party in 1966, experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett made an observation that would change the American cultural landscape: his three-year-old daughter was enthralled by television. Was there a way of using television to educate? And Sesame Street was born. After failed test runs involving only live actors, Jim Henson’s Muppets (marionette puppets) were introduced. The show was a hit. Children loved the cute, friendly creatures, and parents loved the smart content. “It’s Not Easy Being Green” wasn’t simply catchy and fun; it also encouraged kids to embrace the idea of being unique.

While the Muppets were the best-known puppets in town, other decidedly more radical creatures were being constructed on the Lower East Side. Anyone who partook in or has seen clips of Vietnam War protests might be familiar with Peter Schumann’s giant rod puppets. Originally created to stage politically minded pieces about working-class neighborhood issues, Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater became a staple of the opposition effort in New York, closing down city blocks with its processions and pageants. In 1982, during the United Nations’ disarmament talks, Bread and Puppet, along with 250 masks and puppets and a team of thousands of volunteers, staged an historic three-part epic up Fifth Avenue.

Puppets moved uptown in an entirely different way in the 1990s, the decade that also saw the creation of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater. While companies such as Mabou Mines experimented at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, which opened its Puppet Lab in 1997, the Walt Disney enterprise had enlisted a relatively unknown puppeteer to create creatures for the musical adaptation of its popular film The Lion King. Julie Taymor’s creatures resulted in a 1998 Tony Award for the production that has since toured cities from Paris to Jakarta.

More puppetry followed. In 2003, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s Avenue Q was a Broadway hit. Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home, staged in 2003, featured both human and puppet actors in key roles. In 2008, Shrek The Musical with its 17-foot-tall dragon puppet premiered on the Great White Way. Academically, it is now possible to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees in puppetry at the University of Connecticut. Politically, Bread and Puppet’s legacy carries on; the giant papier-mâché creations remain iconic images of the 1999 protests in Seattle against the WTO. Puppets have appeared at similar rallies since and were a key feature of the satirical 2004 film Team America: World Police. As the Puppet Lab continues to experiment at St. Ann’s Warehouse, smaller, newer companies such as the Puppet Kitchen and Phantom Limb are contributing their own creatures and stories to New York’s puppeteering community.

While we admire live actors for their ability to transform into other living beings, there is a particular kind of awe inspired by watching something inanimate, something perhaps as simple as a lonely sock, suddenly appear genuinely infused with life. Unlike live actors, puppets come with no pencil-pushing day jobs, no history of heartbreak since the sixth grade and no particular opinions on the latest bill being pushed through Congress. Thus, whether attached to strings or sticks, whether made with a paper bag or by the latest technology, whether first taking to the stage in Toyko or Toledo, the puppet has and continues to be the ideal blank, “living” canvas on which we can fully express our unique selves: it will believe, like we do, in Ganesh or Proposition 8 or the crucial importance of eating copious amounts of chocolate chip cookies.

For many of us, Kermit became like a family member that we welcomed into our homes as we ate our afternoon animal crackers and drank our apple juice. To us, Kermit feels like a living creature, a character that somehow exists as a separate entity, transcending even his iconic creator. It would seem, then, that Kermit, now a few months into retirement, has every reason to smile. Though it still might not be easy being green, it is a pretty great time to be a puppet.

Is the composer really dead?

By Madeleine Oldham

Daniel Handler grew up singing in a choir, and his parents were big opera buffs. Being exposed to music of all kinds from an early age instilled in him an appetite for it that has served him well throughout his life. Not all kids learn about music from their parents, however, and it’s gotten progressively more difficult to gain similar knowledge in schools as recent years have seen a shift in this country’s values away from arts education. Handler’s desire to address the lack of adequate musical exposure for this generation’s children inspired him to create The Composer is Dead with longtime friend, composer Nathaniel Stookey. The book and CD were published by HarperCollins in 2009.

Studies abound about music’s relationship to the human experience and the myriad roles it can play in people’s lives. It’s been shown to foster creativity, sensitivity, self-esteem, collaboration and discipline. It helps young people understand that the world is not black and white, and initiates conversations about the subjective nature of things. It’s able to connect us with the past and with cultures beyond our borders. It can unlock parts of the brain inaccessible to language and assist the development of people with learning disabilities, or offer moments of respite to those suffering from degenerative neurological conditions.

But what role does classical music in particular play in today’s cultural landscape? Some see it as the domain of men in musty wigs from a time long gone. Nathaniel Stookey has a very different take on it: “I don’t really distinguish that much between classical music and other kinds of music. There are lots of people like me today who don’t really categorize,” an attitude perfectly in keeping with today’s mashup society. Stookey continues, “Why I like writing for orchestras and classical instruments is, basically, it’s the biggest live band there is. The palette is very rich, with a huge breadth and emotional scope—what the players can do is vast.”

Stookey stresses that a foundation in how to read and write music is just as important as a basic understanding of math, history or biology: “I can’t imagine raising children without music. It’s totally required in my house, like long division—no one thinks of it as elective. Music should be that way—built in as something that we learn alongside everything else. You get more and give more when you’re literate.”

Stookey also addresses the common contemporary perception that orchestral music is not for everyone: “We’ve lost a lot of opportunities with the decline of music literacy. It wouldn’t be such a class-bound system if there were better education across the board.”

Music’s transformative powers are well-documented, and it’s no secret that music can change people. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the first woman to helm a prominent American orchestra, has devoted herself to making classical music more accessible and offering opportunities to undergo experiences like the one she describes below:

When I was 14 years old or so, I started attending a summer chamber music camp where we played chamber music day and night.

As I was passing through the dormitory hallway on my way to dinner one evening, I heard strains of a recording coming through someone’s door. I was immediately drawn, almost like a magnet, to that closed door.

The music was mesmerizing, gripping and thrilling. Something happened to me that had never happened before: I felt deeply and profoundly moved by a piece of music. I gradually sank to the floor outside the door and found myself unexpectedly weeping, overcome by the beauty and power of the music.

The recording was the “String Sextet in B-flat” by Johannes Brahms, and I immediately asked my father to buy me a recording of the piece. I listened to that Amadeus Quartet (and guests) recording so many times that I think I wore it down to a state of see-through vinyl! To this day, when I hear the opening three notes of the B-flat sextet, I feel transported and transformed.

I understood in that 14-year-old moment that music has the capacity to fundamentally touch and change each one of us, and I fell hopelessly in love with becoming a musician.

This emotional gravitation towards—and attachment to—the music of Brahms has lasted my entire life. And recording the Brahms Symphonies with the London Philharmonic was both deeply satisfying and hugely inspiring for me. I remember feeling again like a teenager in love…but that’s what music can do for us all!

Nathaniel Stookey takes that a step further to describe the experience he has while composing:

It’s an escapist act—I disappear into a parallel universe and it takes me away. Listening does that sometimes, but composing does it reliably and to the nth degree. When I’m composing, I’m much further gone. It’s like crack—I might be able to get along without it, but I haven’t tried in a really long time. And like an addict, I’m not really interested in trying.

Stookey and Handler feel very strongly that all people should have the opportunity to be transported by music, and decided they could do something to try to open more doors. Handler notes that “many people were tired of taking their children to hear Peter and the Wolf over and over again.” More options were needed, and sometimes action (or music!) speaks louder than words.

Theatre for Young Audiences

By Madeleine Oldham

Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), a national service organization, still maintains a relatively low profile in the United States. Family theatre has a reputation for being something that entertains children, and that adults sit through. But a movement has been gaining steam to create a body of work that audiences of all ages can enjoy.

TYA has taken great strides recently. Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis won the 2003 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Children’s theatres are increasingly hiring writers and directors that work in the adult professional theatre to ensure the highest quality of artistry and storytelling. And theatres that aren’t known for doing work for younger audiences have begun to incorporate family programming into their seasons.

Plays for children don’t necessarily have to exclude adults. The most successful works operate on both levels—some things strike a chord with the kids, others with the grownups. But the key to creating an experience that all ages can enjoy is to avoid condescending or talking down to children. (Which is always good advice anyway.) This helps keep everybody engaged.

International companies figured this out a long time ago. Europe in particular is known for creating inventive, sophisticated work for young people that adults also appreciate and enjoy. They discovered that, in some ways, TYA allowed them to be even freer with their creative hand, because kids’ imaginations are in better shape than those of the adults. It’s less work to get a family audience to buy into a fantastical environment or a nonrealistic world, because kids go there instantly and bring the adults along with them.

An umbrella organization for worldwide TYA theatres called ASSITEJ International notes in its vision statement: “ASSITEJ knows that the future is in the hands of our children and young people and that providing inspiring theatre experiences helps give them tools to navigate this brave new world.”

Some well-known artists who have created TYA work include:
Nilo Cruz
Melissa James Gibson
Danny Hoch
Quiara Alegria Hudes
David Henry Hwang
Naomi Iizuka
Kevin Kling
Tony Kushner
Marion McClinton
Diane Paulus

Watch now

Production trailer

To the delight of children and adults alike, Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead comes alive on stage.