East Bay children’s theater company makes debut in San Francisco

SF Public Press
 — Feb 17 2010 - 5:59pm

In its second, and final weekend, the Active Arts children’s theater company is staging its first San Francisco production with “Ramona Quimby” at the Zeum Theater.

The play performed by the Oakland-based group addresses complex themes of economic inequality, familial obligations and identity formation with simple dialogue and minimal props. The show, based on Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series, ran at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley for the past three weekends. It premiered last weekend in San Francisco and will run through this Sunday.

“This is our first foray into San Francisco,” said Active Arts co-founder and director, Nina Meehan. “The Zeum Theater is a great venue for young people because it’s a venue where children can see easily.”

Even though Active Arts productions are based on children and young adult literature, the theater group seeks to stage plays in the Bay Area that are relatable and affordable to both adults and children.

The stage adaptation of “Ramona Quimby” – written by Len Jenkin – strings together humorous vignettes that trace Ramona’s growth from a rebellious third grader who refuses to give up her luxuries when her father becomes unemployed to a grateful fourth grader who gracefully accepts her family’s condition. It’s narrated by Ramona’s older sister, Beezus, who speaks her woes directly to the audience: “Try being the oldest sometimes, and everybody thinks you’re already grown up so they can ignore you, but you’re really not and you get stuck all the time taking care of your little sister, and nobody listens to you.”

Ramona’s parents, too, struggle with their own problems — her dad, Bob Quimby, loses his job at a frozen food warehouse and smokes cigarettes to cope, and her mother, Dorothy Quimby, finds work as a receptionist at a doctor’s office to support the family.

The play has a combination of current issues like unemployment and timeless themes like sibling rivalry.

“We’ve gotten a lot of comments from moms. Some said that seeing the play brought back memories of reading the Ramona books when they were a kid,” Meehan said. The first novel in the series was written in 1955.

Meehan has been working with theater groups for young people since she was 16. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in theater from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in nonprofit management from the University of San Francisco, Meehan worked in educational theater — doing shows for children with intent to teach. But she wanted to produce children’s plays like Ramona Quimby that could be enjoyed by both children and adults. She founded Active Arts in Oakland in 2004 with four other like-minded theater professionals.

“We started with five people who were all-enthusiastic about theatre and young people and wanted to bring that together in the Bay Area, especially to do literary adaptations because we believe the link between arts, literacy and imagination is really powerful for children in an audience,” Meehan said.

Now in its fifth year, Active Arts has staged plays based on books such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business,” “Pippi Longstocking,” “Little Women” and “Dragon Wings.” Other theater companies in the Bay Area that produce stage shows for families are Oakland-based East Bay Children’s Theatre and Palo Alto Children’s Theatre.

Until now, Active Arts has put on performances for audiences in Oakland, Berkeley and San Ramon. Meehan said that the company decided to locate performance spaces in other Bay Area cities such as San Francisco in order to ease the commute for audience members who wanted to see the performances.

“When you’re performing a show for kids 5, 6 or 7 years old, a mom or dad living in Pleasanton is not likely to drive an hour to see a show, but is likely to drive 15 minutes,” said Meehan.

To achieve this, Active Arts partners with Bay Area children’s organizations such as Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, the Julia Morgan Center for Arts in Berkeley, the Front Row Theater in San Ramon and most recently, the Zeum Theater in San Francisco.

“We’ve had a lot of success partnering with other organizations where our mission and their mission cross paths,” Meehan said. “We can bring them a show and they can bring us an audience.”

In addition to producing three stage shows every year in these spaces, Active Arts cast members tour to local Bay Area schools, public libraries and other community events every other year.

Active Arts is one of the fortunate nonprofit organizations to successfully sustain itself during the economic downturn.

“We are lucky enough to be in a place of expansion right now whereas most (theater) companies are in a place where they are having to narrow their focus,” Meehan said.

A survey of 94 (nonprofit and for profit) Bay Area theatre companies conducted in August 2009 by Theatre Bay Area and Theatre Communications Group found that 42 percent predicted their year-end budget results would be worse than the original budget. But 52 percent forecast being similar to or the same as budgeted. Meehan said Active Arts’ revenue has been growing by roughly 30 percent each year for the last four years.

“Every year we’re making a stronger case (to donors) that the work we do has a ton of value for the community,” Meehan said.

Active Arts – which has a budget of about $200,000 – is funded by a combination of ticket sales, individual donors, city government programs and community arts grants. Meehan said that the company has received grants from the Clorox Community Foundation, the city of Oakland’s Cultural Arts Department, the city of San Ramon’s Performing Arts department and The Bernard Osher Foundation. The funds help offset production costs as well as support the children’s theatre classes that Active Arts offers in San Ramon.

Despite the organization’s economic and production growth, Meehan said that revenue continues to be an ever-present challenge.

“It’s always been our founding principle to keep our ticket prices as low as possible,” she said. “But the problem as a nonprofit is that our ticket prices don’t cover the cost of the shows.”

For any main stage performance, ticket prices range from $11 to $19 per person. Meehan said that Active Arts works with parents who cannot afford tickets by asking them to volunteer at the theater as an usher while their children watch the show for free. Active Arts also donates tickets to social service organizations like the San Francisco-based nonprofit Community Access Ticket Service that distribute them to low-income groups in the community.

Although accessibility and affordability are crucial to drawing in families in the Bay Area, some parents said that it’s the literature-based productions that hook them.

“One of my daughters has read the Ramona books many times,” said Amy Schoenblum-Carey of Oakland, who was with her daughter and her daughter’s four friends at Berkeley performance, “I think they show more of an interest (in theater) after watching the plays.”

“I’ve been going to see the Active Arts plays for years,” said Jeannie Rucker of Oakland, who was with her 10-year-daughter, Mayfair. “I think it’s interesting for them to see a live performance. It’s totally different from going to the movies or watching T.V. I think it’s a really good educational and entertainment experience.” Rucker, who has supported the theater group since its inception, said that her daughter reads the books before seeing the play.

One of Active Arts’ traditions – a favorite of Mayfair’s – is to bring cast members on stage after the play to sign autographs for the children.

“Well, I pretty much have posters from pretty much all the plays signed by every character except for Dragon Wings,” Mayfair said.

Reach the reporter at akandasamy[AT]sfpublicpress.org.

“Ramona Quimby”
Where: Zeum Theater, 221 4th St., San Francisco
When: 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Feb. 20 and 21
Tickets: $18 adult, $16 senior, $14 child, group rate $11
Details: www.activeartstheatre.org