Michael Bobbitt’s big dream is a small audience. Not a scarce one, mind you — no arts organization wants that — but an audience made up of our smallest citizens, young enough to appreciate Adventure Theatre’s unique brand of enchantment. Five years into his role as Artistic Director, Bobbitt’s mind is whirling with questions — and ideas — for the seasons soon to come.
TheatreWashington’s announcement on Monday that Adventure Theatre has earned 13 Helen Hayes Award nominations for its past year of shows speaks to the company’s amplified reach. Bobbitt has brought the landmark Glen Echo theatre into a robust new era, with 71,000 patrons last year (five years ago, when Bobbitt arrived at Adventure, patrons totaled 18,000).
Bobbitt sat down with DC Theatre Scene to talk through some of Adventure Theatre’s immediate challenges, as well as some exciting longer-term goals.
Michael Bobbitt: “Man, I love the kids. When I hear the responses from the kids watching our shows… I mean, it’s visceral. They feel it right then and there, in the moment. They’re not conditioned to wait until the end of a musical number to applaud. They’re responding right away — they’re dancing when the music starts. And if a character on stage asks another character a question, you can bet that someone in the audience is going to call out the answer. Children just don’t censor themselves, and that feeling of involvement they show is inspiring.
Taking kids to theatre is really important. Even if they’re not coming to Adventure specifically. I think theatre-going begets more theatre-going. What a great way to establish the next generation of artists and audiences. I’m always sad to meet people who don’t buy children’s theatre as legitimate. I say to them, why do you think there are any adults out there who love theatre? It’s because we saw it when we were kids.
Adventure Theatre is a great organization. A cute little theatre in an old, renovated amusement park. It’s a wonderful setting, where you can make a day out of seeing a play.
We’ve gotten really hot. The shows are selling out sometimes before they open. We’re having a good year. It’s interesting, though, because the ticket sales never come close to covering our costs. Think about it: we have the same production needs — and administrative needs — as a big-boy theatre. But our average ticket price is about fourteen dollars. So, as you can imagine, there’s always a lot of fundraising as well.
Even with this level of ticket sales, our kids age out really fast. We’re seeing a thirty to forty percent turnover in our audience every year. And we doesn’t do subscriptions to our shows, so we can’t keep people coming back in the same way that theatres like Studio or Shakespeare can.
Children’s theatres also have to step up their game because we have more competition now from the big established theatres. Why? Because a lot of arts grants these days are looking for theatres that do a certain amount of family-friendly programming. Which means more established theatres are presenting family-friendly shows in their season. This forces the smaller children’s theatres to step it up as far as the production quality. It’s just another reason we’re growing right now.
Before coming to Adventure I was part-time touring manager of Discovery Theater at the Smithsonian. I was also doing some freelance directing here and there, and teaching. Theatre leadership and management seemed to be the best stepping stone for me. So I took some business classes and joined some boards. I learned as much as I could. Then I moved our family over to Glen Echo. Adventure Theatre asked if I would come direct a play there and join the board. So, that’s how I got involved.
It had been a community theatre based model, where the board ran everything. They produced the shows, directed the shows, ran the operations. But in 2006, when I put in my bid, they were doing a capital campaign. The point of the campaign was to professionalize the theatre — to bring in professional staff. So it was a great chance for me to learn a lot about the business very quickly.
That change came with a lot of growing pains, and frustration, and emotion. It was hard to see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow at times. But it’s all working. And now we have a culture at Adventure where our staff likes to reach for the stars… Our employees have not been afraid to try things, to advocate for even the biggest projects. I love that attitude.
There are a lot of different views on what children’s theatre should be. What’s your obligation to a young audience?
I could go on and on about programs like No Child Left Behind — about how aggressive schools have become, to the point where children don’t have time to enjoy the arts. At certain schools, arts funding has decreased so much that when parents choose a school for their kid, they feel like they have to make a choice between art and education. Many teachers find it very hard to negotiate with their principals for a field trip unless the trip is tied directly to the curriculum. And all those things are affecting the plays that get written. For a playwright, it affects how they balance education and entertainment in what they write.
Most children’s plays teach kids to become better citizens. But the difficult thing is that kids don’t want to be lectured to. A lot of them don’t want to learn. So you have to find a way to disguise the learning in a creative and artistic way. Often, educational plays fall short in that they forget the best part about theatre — that it can entertain and transport us. So when we can find a really great, dramatic way to teach through entertainment, then you’ve got the kids following right along with you.
Bullying is a hot topic, so there are lots of bullying plays coming out right now. Hopefully it will become dated soon, because we will solve the epidemic. The government is starting to look at the issue, schools are starting to look at it heavily. But the tactics to deal with bullying are changing every year, which means a lot of older plays about bullying are pretty dated now. Like, this whole notion of “It Gets Better” is starting to infiltrate new plays about bullying. That wasn’t something that existed a few years back. The lesson was mostly: Tell Someone. But the message now is more primarily about self-preservation — this idea that it may be hard now but it does get better. So, plays have to change as the culture changes.
So, I’m looking for a bully play that works. I’m looking for good history plays too. Plays about civil rights, black history, American history, Maryland history… I’m looking. I’ve got a big old stack of books. There are tons of great stories out there.
We really have to write for the kids that are growing up right now. And that means children’s theatre has to be a little more sophisticated than it used to be. Kids are faster these days. They just know more. It’s because they get new information so much faster. So what they can handle — and what they expect — has changed a lot.
Since I got here in 2007, we’ve revised and adapted eight new works. And in the next couple years, there are another six in the queue. We’re doing that because the genre is changing. Over the last decade, or two decades, the writing has just gotten a lot better. The children’s plays that were written in the 80s and 90s… Well, a lot of them weren’t great. Writing plays for children just wasn’t attracting the talents of truly great playwrights.
But look at the possibilities! Like, a lot of what Disney has done is such great art. Seeing The Lion King on Broadway… you can’t deny the art that was created for that show. So that’s why we’re trying to pull in established writers to write for us that may not have considered children’s theatre.
Commissioning new plays gives us a lot of quality control on the artistic front. It gives us a chance to write plays about what’s happening right here and now. And it also helps us become more known on the national level, because we’re contributing to the new works that are out there.
I knew Adventure Theatre had possibilities. But three or four years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that what we’ve been able to accomplish was even possible. This would have seemed more like a 10 or 15 year plan. I’m very happy. Especially because the attention we’re getting is directly because of our programming. It validates who we are.”