Style Unlocked: Stages of Dress

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Posted By on May 7, 2020

Clothes help tell the story at Childsplay

 For more than four decades, Childsplay has invited young audiences throughout Arizona to “imagine together” and experience high-quality, professional theater. Touring shows at schools, in-house performances at the Herberger Theater, drama academy classes and educational outreach all engage children and families in the magic of theater. But at the height of the 2020 spring season, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing Childsplay to seek new ways to keep that magic alive.

“The business of live theatre is all about bringing people together with live actors to share an experience,” said Dwayne Hartford, Childsplay’s artistic director. “For us, the vast majority of our audience are students who either come to one of our productions on a school field trip or experience Childsplay in their school.” With school closures and government restrictions on public gatherings to fight the spread of COVID-19, Childsplay canceled their spring show as well as their in-school residency work and academy classes and pivoted to providing digital content.

The result is the Online Drama Academy taught by professional theater artists. Workshops offers online drama instruction from one-on-one coaching to virtual group classes like “Improvirtual” and “Onward to Adventure,” which culminate in a Zoom showcase that family and friends can “attend.”

Childsplay also rolled out “Imagine Together Online,” a series of family activities, creative projects and learning opportunities. The roster includes family social challenges, online streaming of full performances from the archives, and the “Explore-a-Story” series that features Childsplay associate artists like Katie McFadzen, who invite viewers to put on their “imagination helmets” and join them for a drama-infused story reading. They also recently debuted “Mira y Crea” (Look and Create), which offers some of the content in Spanish to make it more accessible. 

“Looking forward, we face the uncertainty of when schools will be ready to come back to the theater or welcome us back into the schools themselves. We are looking at ways that we can be as flexible as possible, being as ready as we can be for the near- and mid-term so that we will be here long-term,” Hartford said.

Until the time comes when they can resume live theater, members of Childsplay look back on some of their most cherished costumes.

Jon Gentry, Childsplay associate artist

With more than 30 years of experience at Childsplay, it’s no wonder Gentry had a hard time narrowing down his top picks. “Costumes … oh my! So many, so amazing, too many favorites. The costumes for ‘A Year With Frog and Toad’ were amazingly detailed, beautiful, with lots of layers, and took a long time to put on because there were about 10 to 12 pieces to ONE costume,” he said. “But they help you create what you’re doing as well. Once I saw a rendering of a costume I’d be wearing, it completely told me how I was going to play the character, before we even started rehearsal.”

These days, Gentry is adapting his educational background to fit with the current times. “At this moment, I’m performing the role of teacher — online teacher at that. While my degree actually is in education, this is my first online experience of having class, and with the technology, often the students are teaching me.”

Katie McFadzen, Childsplay associate artist

Katie McFadzen first joined Childsplay in 1993. “I love my job performing foryoung audiences and families and am grateful I’ve been able to do it for the past 27 years,” she said.
Favorite costumes in that time? “The Mad Hatter rock-star look in ‘Wonderland’ and the fabulous lady-pirate look of Mary Reid in ‘Pete, or The Return of Peter Pan,’” she said. She also enjoys donning the many wigs she’s been called to wear — sometimes because she plays more than one character in a show and other times because her natural hair doesn’t fit the character she’s playing.

As a Childsplay actor and teaching artist, McFadzen has been working to develop online content to fill the needs of teachers, audiences and the community. “Not knowing when we’ll be able to share live stories with our audiences again hurts my heart,” she said. “But I’m hopeful that we will hear the joyful noise of 300-plus laughing kiddos in our audience again soon.”

Debra K. Stevens, Childsplay associate artist

Stevens is spending much of her time on Zoom these days focused on teaching classes through the Online Academy. “I am teaching a class based on ‘The Giver’ by Lois Lowry. The students are deconstructing the story and creating new works of art based on the events of the book,” she said.

Next up will be this same class, but focusing on “Charlotte’s Web,” a story Stevens knows a few things about. “‘Charlotte’s Web’ remains one of the most beautiful stories in juvenile literature,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to play Charlotte five times now for Childsplay. I fall more in love with her each time.”

One of the elements Stevens loves about Charlotte’s costume is the corset. “I always love wearing a corset on stage, and I love the color palette of this costume. The wig is particularly fabulous,” she said.

Ricky Araiza, Childsplay office manager and artistic director for Teatro Bravo

ASU alum Ricky Araiza started his professional career as an ensemble member of Childsplay in 2004. He has gone on to work with the company for more than a dozen years as an actor and teaching artist and has since received his master’s in Theatre for Youth and Communities.

Today, he is “acting” in a different role, serving as Childsplay’s office manager and gala assistant. “This gives me a unique opportunity to work in theater from a different perspective. Having my own theater company, Teatro Bravo, I have the wonderful opportunity to learn from one of the leading theater companies in the Valley and collaborate with my ensemble in a different way,” he said.

Some of his favorite costumes were from the play “Chato’s Kitchen,” where comfort was key. “The show required physical comedy and quick changes, which can be tricky, but to be able to do it in such comfortable clothing that reflected, authentically, members of my community was a treat. Plus, I looked suave,” he said.

To learn more, go to childsplayaz.org.

For information about the Online Drama Academy, visit childsplayaz.org/online-classes.

For online activities and performances for families and educators, go to childsplayaz.org/imagine-online.

Catie Richman

About Catie Richman

Catie Richman is a contributing writer for Frontdoors Media.