If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, presented by MainStreet Theatre Company, opens Sept. 26; plays Sat. & Sun. matinees at 1 and 4 pm for general public; until Oct. 10. Tickets: $13.50-$16.50. Lewis Family Playhouse, Victoria Gardens Cultural Center, 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga; 909.477.2752 or 877.858.8422 or lewisfamilyplayhouse.com
A first time theater experience, especially for a child, can have a profound effect. It can spark something from within and create a hunger for more. It can excite, engage and captivate like no other art form. Even with today’s abundance of entertainment — videogames, TV, movies and the internet — nothing compares to live theater. That is why children’s theater is so important.
MainStreet Theatre Company, owned and operated by the City of Rancho Cucamonga, is “determined to continue to give children, who are experiencing theatre for the first time, memories they will cherish their entire lives.”
MainStreet’s producer and only office staffer, Mireya Hepner, believes they are “the most well=kept secret in greater Los Angeles. We are a resident professional company at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga,” adding, “and we are an Equity theater.”
The company started from scratch in 2006 and is going into its fourth season, beginning Sept. 26, with an adaptation by Jody Davidson of the beloved children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff. Directing will be John-David Keller, who directs shows for children at South Coast Repertory.
The season continues in 2010 with a musical adaptation of Cinderella with book by Phylis Ward Fox and music and lyrics by David Coleman (playing Jan. 30-Feb. 13), directed by Mark Rucker. An adaptation by Jonathon Bolt of the classic book Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson will finish the season (May 8-22).
“This is a special place,” says Hepner. “We produce high-quality productions with a terrific design team and Los Angeles actors. All our actors and designers are Los Angeles or Southern California based.” She adds, “And the best thing is everyone wants to come back, which is great!”
In fact, MainStreet manages to get very well-known directors and designers. “Most people who work here are not what you think of as children’s theater practitioners,” mentions Hepner. For example, Rucker (Miss Nelson is Missing, James and the Giant Peach and Cinderella) likes to come back and direct every season. Other notable artists include lighting designer Brian Gale, set and costume designer Victoria Petrovich, designer Christina Haatainen Jones, director Robert Castro and musical director/composer Deborah Wicks La Puma.
“My background is not in children’s theater,” admits Hepner, “and my aesthetic is very eclectic.” She laughs, “I’m the only one who would ask Robert Castro (who’s directed Dreams of Anne Frank and Ferdinand the Bull at MainStreet) to work for us.” Robert has a very artistic and sophisticated aesthetic so is not usually the type of director other people might think of when doing a show for children. Right after finishing Ferdinand, he went right into rehearsals with Peter Sellers on Othello. And I love that because children deserve the same type of artistry as adults do. Most of the directors I hire are not known as children’s theater directors.”
She has also started an artist-in-residence program. “David Wood (author of James and the Giant Peach) is currently a part of the program which started last year with a grant from the Rancho Cucamonga Community Foundation. David was the first one. He was in town for a week and did a series of events in conjunction with our production of his show, such as talk backs, school visits, library story time, an actor workshop and a lecture for college teachers and the theater community.Â In the spring we continued the program by bringing flamenco workshops to local schools in conjunction with Ferdinand.
“We received another grant this year to continue the program. We’ll be using it for a variety of things at the Lewis Family Playhouse, not necessarily tied to MainStreet.”
Hepner is bent on making not just great children’s theater but great theater period. “We’re responsible for a lot of kids’ first experience in theater. It’s important to encourage them to give up video games and get out there.
“Also, we’re a part of a greater thing; not just the playhouse but also the community.” She adds, “The aesthetic can be anything from little kids to adults.” For example, for Anne Frank, seniors in the audience were in tears.
“We’ve started to get a loyal following; the community has responded really well. I always tell them this is their theater. And those who come, come back. Especially the schools, they book every show. The schools are very vocal about attending the theater. There are five different school districts and we serve mostly K-5. After school performances, the kids write to us about what a great experience it was.”
In terms of educating the children “we don’t push education, rather, we let the work speak for itself. They see it and get excited (about theater).” Hepner also writes study guides for all the plays and posts them on the theater’s website for teachers to use. “We also have two morning shows where we have talk backs with the kids.
“We are educating through art,” she proclaims. “For example, during Anne Frank, one kid raised his hand and asked, ‘Who is Hitler?’ And how do you answer that?”
Most theater organizations in LA are artist-owned-and-operated. Has it been difficult to be owned by the city? Hepner answers, “We may be owned and run by the city but it’s really our own community theater.” She elaborates, “Because we get a large majority of our funding from the city, we have to be mindful that we’re spending the money wisely. Yet, MainStreet does have artistic freedom. It’s great — I get to produce plays instead of writing grants all day long,” she exclaims.
“It’s nice because we get to do theater for the love of it and we pay union salaries. We believe in it enough to know people should get paid.”
Being a fairly young company, MainStreet is slowly building up a reputation. “We are, indeed, a part of the theater community. Thanks to the new Ovation voting system, we’re getting more voters out here. And they’re always glad they came.”
About the theater being in Rancho Cucamonga:Â “It’s not as far as you think! MainStreet really is a jewel box.”
MainStreet offers children a first glimpse of what theater can be. “We are creating audiences of the future. It’s important to keep them coming back.” Part of MainStreet’s mission is to produce “plays that will make children laugh, think, dream and set free the power of their imagination!”
Hepner stresses “there’s no dumbing down of information for the children. The playbills are all very serious.
“I’m happy we’re able to tell stories. And because we don’t dumb down the productions, adults also really enjoy our shows.” It proves children’s theater isn’t just for kids at all. It’s also for the adults who want to get in touch with their inner child. After all, there’s nothing like being encapsulated and enthralled by the magic of theater.
Feature image of Heather Corwin, Nick Mongiardo-Cooper, Jesse Carrion, and Armando Ortega by Ed Krieger. Mireya Hepner image by Julie Haber. Story images by Ed Krieger.