Fringe producers sometime ask each other: How big is your audience tonight? For Ali Oliver-Krueger, that’s sort of a trick question. The audience members at shows by Interact, the Wheaton-based children’s story theatre, aren’t big. But they grow up fast.
“We want to be the company that helps every kid see a great theatre show,” she explains. We’re sitting on the patio at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent in the afternoon sun, fresh off a performance of Interact’s Fringe show The Shirt of Happiness. “We want to get to kids even when their parents can’t get them to a theatre. That’s why we are primarily a touring group. We’re in a lot of schools, community centers, and public spaces. I’ve done shows on the back of an empty trailer!”
Bringing an Interact show to Fringe, then, made good sense to Oliver-Krueger. “We are just now starting to put down the kind of roots that let us do public-venue shows, and this is where we’re starting that push even more actively.”
Fringe isn’t always family-friendly. Will young and family audiences come?
She has no doubt. “I’ve been talking with families and connecting with several parent blogs, and parents are really excited about it. We’ve also been doing some ticket giveaways to get more parents and kids into Fringe.”
Even though The Shirt of Happiness is the first Capital Fringe show for Interact, Oliver-Krueger has been coming here for years, including as a performer in other Fringe productions. “And I’m seeing more kids’ stuff here than ever before. I think there’s no doubt that there are more shows for kids being done in the Fringe now than there used to be. Like Lumina’s new show Fireball XL. Like Maryland Ensemble Theatre doing The Young Olympians. Shows like Kids In Space and The Crayon King. And I think families are picking up on it.”
It’s a different vibe here at Fringe than at the larger, more institutional children’s theatres in the area. I ask Oliver-Kruger how she thinks Interact fits into that constellation of children’s theatre companies.
“I love talking with other companies about what they’ve doing and how they do it. But I’m also a really grassroots, boots-on-the-ground person. We work based on what we see. We’re not Adventure Theatre, and we’re not Imagination Stage — we don’t have the same kind of infrastructure in place. But that also means that we don’t have those certain sets of fixed responsibilities. We can go where the mission takes us. We pay our bills, we pay our actors a professional wage, and still every year we ask ourselves big questions about what we’re going to do next and where we’re going to go.
Any they go all over the place. Just about everywhere in Maryland. DC, Virginia, sometimes Pennsylvania and the Carolinas, and beyond.
The Shirt of Happiness
by Lenore Blank Kelner
at Studio Theatre – Stage 4
1501 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20005
Details and tickets
“You kind of have to forego the idea of being in a traditional theatre space when you do work like this,” she says. And it’s clear that over the past decade of her involvement with Interact — itself 34 years old — she’s been putting a lot of thought into streamlining the ways that the company’s shows travel and get produced.
She became the director of Interact in 2008 — not a great year economically, to say the least. “But it forced us to be really creative and lean about our work. We moved our operations online. We worked from the cloud to get things organized together. We really adopted a green strategy. And once we embraced all of that, we could keep it all going and still make it affordable.”
It’s a fitting theme for The Shirt of Happiness, which has much to say about the ways that we perceive money, wealth, popularity, and fame around us on a daily basis. What do you really need in order to be happy?
“And with Interact, everyone is part of the show, right from your seat,” Oliver-Krueger explains. “Everyone is part of the experience. In The Shirt of Happiness, everyone becomes different characters in the show. We work in a really transformational style, so that two actors can easily become a variety of characters. Our set transforms into a variety of locations. We use multimedia and sound to enhance the storytelling. We use a lot of physical cues, call and response, and a lot of physical work. So that whether kids are verbal or non-verbal, whether you’re shy or you want to get right into it, whatever age you are, you can participate in some way.”
The Shirt of Happiness has become a sort of Interact classic, and the company rotates it back into play every few years, each time adding something new and fresh to it. Sometimes that’s about updating some pop culture references in the show. Sometimes it’s about incorporating newer music. “We want to keep it moving, to keep it bright and engaging.”
And it’s fun for parents, too. Oliver-Krueger cites the characters of Ethel Mermaid — a Broadway chanteuse who hails from Secaucus NJ, where she’s always the catch of the day — and the wealthy olive oil baron Babaganoush (“he’s just dripping in gold”) as consistent favorites among older members of the audience.
And how often does Interact create brand-new shows?
“Right now I have about four different shows in my brain in different stages of development,” she says. “We do a lot of devising and improv in order to get there. The next thing on our list is that we’re premiering a completely new show in September, called Not My Monkey.”
How could anyone resist coming to a show with a title like that?
Turns out it’s a play about a traveling Polish circus, full of color and life but very disorganized. Think backstage at The Muppet Show. When the monkeys get loose, the circus performers each break out that classic saying: Not my circus, not my monkey. “So the show deals with a central question: how does a community solve problems when no one thinks it’s their responsibility to take action?”
Empowerment is key. For Not My Monkey, that will mean pausing the show during each performance so that the audience can participate in a town forum to solve the problem. But Oliver-Krueger does a lot of arts integration work as well, working with classroom teachers on how to generate theatrical and artistic projects for their students.
Mostly, it’s about just believing in the value of getting your hands dirty. “If we’re saying to kids and to teachers: take risks, be creative, try something and see if it works, then we have to walk that walk as a company too.”
The landscape is always changing, she adds. “We’ve met some wonderful playwrights over the years, and we’re looking to bring in more collaborators. I love that we’re getting more voices involved in the early creative process for these shows. I do feel like we’re expanding. And we definitely want to do more work in DC.”
And Fringe has been a good fit. “We’re talking with parents who are saying, “I’ve always wanted to see a Fringe show, and now here’s one I can bring my kids to!” They’re excited that Fringe has more family-friendly material. It’s really nice that we have shows here now that are geared toward giving kids an entry into the world of Fringe in a way that makes sense.”
“It’s just been great the way we’ve been welcomed,” she adds. “To see that people are digging it. We don’t always get that feedback. Because, remember, we’re performing in a school for a day, or a week, and then we’re gone. People don’t always take the time to tell us how we’re doing. So it’s great to be able to be a part of the Fringe community.”
A chance for Interact to let its Fringe flag fly?
“Absolutely. We are definitely one of the Fringe-ier kids theatres out there.”