Make Time to Laugh with Family Theatre

Editor’s Note: This is the forth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Talking the serious business of making time to be silly, plus bringing live theatre to Tucson’s children with Live Theatre Workshop Family Theatre artistic director Amanda Gremel.

by Leigh Moyer

Live Theatre WorkshopIn the theatre business, you hear a lot about doing it for the love of art or as a passion project. For Amanda Gremel, the Live Theatre Workshop Family Theatre  is certainly a passion project, but isn’t just a love for the craft; rather, it’s a calling and an obligation to future generations that she is only too happy to fulfill. Gremel’s life is steeped in Live Theatre Workshop. As a teen, she discovered her love of acting in their educational programs. As an adult, she pays it forward as a teacher in the same educational programs where she got her start, acts regularly, and is the artistic director for the Family Theatre.

While theatre for all ages is often shorter and lighter than productions rated for adults, it is no less important. “So many times, adults underestimate the power of kids to show us the way,” Gremel explained. “Sometimes we have to stop and take a moment and look at it through their eyes to be reminded that we can problem solve our way, can feel what we do, and it’s okay. Adults get wrapped up in our lives and forget that it’s okay to take that time to laugh.”

“I come to the family shows and I can’t tell you how funny they are.” Deborah Daun, the theatre’s marketing and public relations representative chimed in. “Not only are these shows really hilarious and the playwrights, mostly local playwrights, are really good, but there is incredible quality represented in these shows.”

Beyond being entertaining, the Family Theatre reminds children that they can face big problems, even monstrous ones like in the season opener Tabitha Turnpike Has a MONSTERous Problem, and with trust, determination, and, often, imagination, they can solve those problems. It might seem like a simple lesson, but it is one worth learning at every age, especially when you feel small in the face of problems that seem too large to tackle.

Overcoming life’s challenges with humor isn’t the only important work the Family Theatre productions do. Gremel works hard to expand not only what wonderful worlds children can imagine on stage, but who portrays the characters on stage.

Leda Robinson as RAPunzel and Evander Alan Gains as the Prince. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Leda Robinson as RAPunzel and Evander Alan Gains as the Prince. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

“One of my favorite shows, and audiences loved it, too, was RAPunzel. I loved the script, loved the songs, being able to tour it in schools was great, and the diversity we had was great. We had an African-American Rapunzel and we don’t get to see that very often, right? For young people, and particularly the students in the Title 1 schools we tour in, to be able to see someone that looks like them on stage, in the lead role and singing their hearts out — that is what we are doing this for,” Gremel said of a 2018-2019 hip-hop musical adaptation of the fairytale Rapunzel. “In our world right now, it is so important to showcase that it is okay to be you, regardless of what you look like or who you identify as. The more I can bend the outdated norms, the more I want to. I want these kids to be like, oh, I am going to be this because there shouldn’t be boundaries. It is our job to show that story.”

“Part of the Live Theatre Workshop mission, and we’re very community oriented, is to create the next generation of theatre people,” Daun added. “We have shows for youth, but also education programs both in and out of school. It is a very organic way that LTW cultivates young people. We’re working with teachers and working with young people to come and audition, to be the next generation of actors and audiences.”

To do that, Live Theatre Workshop provides a number of educational opportunities from summer camps to acting classes. One of the programs that Gremel enjoys most is taking two shows from the season, one in the fall semester and one in the spring semester, and touring them in schools. The tours bring shows to children who might not otherwise have access to live theatre.

It isn’t easy to make all this happen. Running two seasons concurrently (Live Theatre Workshop also hosts a full mainstage season as well) isn’t always a fairytale come true. Productions, not to mention classes and other programs, share the same space. That can add up to some logistical challenges. “We have to get very creative in our Family Theatre shows. We only have one stage. Our shows are running at the same time. Our pieces and back drops need to be able to be hung in front of and hide the mainstage show, and often overlap multiple mainstage shows. We have to adjust to accommodate them to make one show work on a new set– in the middle of the run. So we come in early to make it work,” Gremel said. “Tucson has such great talent and passion. There is such passion that the young kids of Tucson are getting the same quality as in the mainstage shows.”

With the new season starting this Sunday, June 30th, who should be getting tickets for Live Theatre Workshop Family shows? Performances are open to everyone. “Audiences range from kids as small as breastfeeding babies, as young as six months old to people in their eighties or nineties,” Gremel answered, “Mainstage season ticket holders enjoy our Family Theatre shows, with or without children, right alongside enchanted kids.” The whole season is online and outlined below. You can become a season ticket holder now and ensure that you and your kids (or your inner child) get five Sundays of theatre.

And which show should you definitely see? Gremel laughed, “I hate to cop out but you are going to get and feel something different from each show. One might make you laugh and let you be silly with the actors on stage, one might let you feel something you forgot how to feel, especially as an adult. One might bring back memories. One might tell an old story in a completely new way, like this season’s adaptation of Pinocchio, done in the commedia dell’arte style using shadow puppets and mask work. They are all so different.”

2019-20 FAMILY SERIES Season

Live Theatre Workshop Family’s 2019-2020 Season:

Tabitha Turnpike Has a MONSTERous Problem
An original musical story by Richard Gremel and music by David Ragland
June 30 – August 11, 2019 (no show July 21), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
Tabitha Turnpike is a little girl with a big imagination. But when her imagination gets her in trouble with her mom and dad, they insist that she quit being creative and grow up. Only problem is, Tabitha discovers a monster living under her bed and she can’t tell her mom and dad about it, because they will think she’s using her imagination again. Her monster has problems of his own. So the two team up and travel to Underthebedland to use their creativity and prove that all of us, monsters and humans, are great despite of our differences.

Pinocchio: The Legend of the Wooden Boy
An original musical adaptation by Tyler West and music by Michael Martinez
September 8 – October 20, 2019 (no show September 29), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
This is a new adaptation based on the beloved characters from Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio: The Adventures of a Marionette.” Watch as three players set up their stage and tell the legend of the wooden puppet who came to life. With the help of masks, costumes, and shadow puppetry they will portray over a dozen of characters; like Geppetto, Pinocchio, The Cricket, The Fox, The Cat, The Blue Fairy, and many more!

Molly Shannon’s Tilly the Trickster
Adapted by Jeremy Dobrish, music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola, orchestrations by David Abbinanti
November 29 – December 28, 2019
Friday and Saturday nights at 7 PM, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 3 PM
Tilly is a mischievous girl who loves nothing more than causing a little trouble. From leaking cups to toothpaste-flavored cookies, Tilly has a trick for everyone: her mom, dad, brother, classmates, and even her teacher. But when the tables are turned and her family does some scheming of its own, will Tilly decide to change her trickster ways? Molly Shannon has created numerous unforgettable characters on Saturday Night Live and in movies such as SUPERSTAR and NEVER BEEN KISSED and now introduces young readers to her latest hilarious creation, TILLY THE TRICKSTER, the musical! Fun for all ages, this is a show you and your family won’t want to miss. Starring Samantha Cormier as Tilly!

Mona Lisa on the Loose
An original musical story by Gretchen Wirges with music by David Ragland
January 26 – March 8, 2020 (no show February 16), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
The Mona Lisa has hung on the walls of an art museum for over 100 years. But what visitors don’t know is that when the lights go out, the paintings come to life! On this day, she overhears the museum officials saying she is no longer drawing people in, and make plans to move her somewhere else. Come join us for a secret view into the mysterious life of the Mona Lisa and other paintings after hours as she plots a way to save her spot on the walls of the Louvre!

The Old Ball Game
An original musical story by Kristian Kissel with music by Michael Martinez
April 19 – May 31, 2020 (no show May 10), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
Forrest Foster LOVES baseball. He comes by it honestly – his Dad played, his Grandfather played, his Great-Grandfather played, his… well, you get the idea. The only problem is that Forrest can’t seem to get into the game yet. But when his little league team’s star player gets injured, his coach just might have to look to the end of the bench and give Forrest his chance. He’s spent countless hours studying the game, its history, its players, and his own opponents. Now he’ll need to take everything he’s learned and put it to use to try to lift his team to victory – all for the love of the old ball game!

Children Need Quality Theatre Too

by Gretchen Wirges

The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot is a family show with a lot of humor, a lot of unexpected messages, and a lot of joy. Often, family theatre is dismissed as not “real” theatre. But what we forget is that family-style shows are often a child’s first exposure to live theatre. Theatres that produce quality family programming have the opportunity to spark a life-long love of the stage.

The cast of The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

I took my cousin’s 5-year-old Lucas with me to see Brave Knight. He was antsy from the second we walked in because he was so excited for the show. We sat in the back row  (his choice) and ooh-ed and ah-ed over the beautifully painted forest on stage.

The story, written by local playwright Richard Gremel, was based on the legend of Sir Lancelot, but took a different twist by creating a play-within-a-play when Lancelot and a wandering acting troupe team up to tell us the story of Lancelot’s most recent conquest. The difference between this show and much of the canned children’s shows I’ve seen was that this show took the cultural care to ensure gender roles were not cliche. Destiny, a maiden wandering through the woods, is out on a quest of her own. She isn’t lost, she doesn’t need to be rescued, and she surely isn’t intending to be swept up in romance by the first handsome face she sees.

Under the direction of Erica Quintero Heras, the show really was wonderfully choreographed and cast. It isn’t mired down by too many costumes or set changes or elaborate movement. The basics were kept simple, allowing the cast to work their magic with the script.

Lancelot, played by William Seidel, was cheeky and brought a fun spirit to Sir Lancelot. His performance was a little bit timid, mostly surrounding what appeared to be lack confidence in his singing. His sidekick Bob, played by Adrian Encinas, was so wonderfully funny and bright. His facial expressions and character vocalization added so much color to the dialogue and the show as a whole. Kyleigh Sacco, who played Destiny, was powerful and strong and believable as this spirited maiden. Amanda Gremel played the roving actor who becomes the witch Sybil. Gremel was funny and animated and added so much to the story. And Taylor Thomas, playing Sybil’s henchwoman Helga, was delightful to watch, especially in her musical numbers. Thomas, Gremel and Sacco’s singing really made it work as a musical.

When I asked Lucas what he thought about the show he said he was sad. Surprised by that answer, I asked him why. “Because I hoped it would be longer,” was his response. I’d say that’s a rousing endorsement from this critical 5-year-old. Lucas and I left Live Theater Workshop with smiles on our faces and clucking like chickens. (You’ll have to go see the show to find out why!)

I thought the story was refreshing and unexpected. I don’t have kids of my own, but I couldn’t help but think about how great it is for kids to see these types of stories where the girl isn’t the perpetual weak victim and the hero isn’t always the dashing male protagonist.

The Brave Knight Sir Lancelot is playing at Live Theater Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through March 24. You can buy tickets on their website, livetheaterworkshop.org, or by calling the box office at 520-327-4242.