Theater critics, at least good ones, should be grizzled theatergoing veterans and yet be centered and sensitive enough to relive the experience of the newcomer every time they see a show. To be a brutally honest with myself, I was only one of those at a Saturday matinee performance of To the Clouds from Arts on the Horizon. I didn’t even have to be sensitive and centered. I was a total noob.
It’s not a usual position for me in a theater, having seen 40ish shows a year for the last few years. But To the Clouds was different. To the Clouds was my first solo outing to a theater with my daughter, who is all of 16 months old with the laugh of an angel and the soul of a Great White Shark..
Arts on the Horizon specializes in what’s called Theater for the Very Young, which is code for Theater for Before the Age Where Your Shenanigans Stop Being Cute or under about 6. Their specialization is clear with To the Clouds; they know their twofold audience of insatiable curious wiggleworms and frazzled parents trying to keep a little culture in their lives.
To the Clouds
closes June 16, 2018
Details and tickets
The performance takes place in a plain room with an arc of seats and seating pads surrounding a couple of cardboard backdrops. You can choose whether to sit on the floor where most of the kids are or hold your child in your lap because of your previous experiences with them leaping onto stages on a whim. There’s also a trunk and a very talented physical performer cooing at the incoming crowd in a comfy onesie and a cloud pillow.
This is Justin J. Bell, a gifted dancer and storyteller who is also onstage in Northern Virginia as Caliban in Avant Bard’s The Tempest. But this afternoon, he’s playing a maker, not a monster. Specifically, he is The Rainmaker, who takes his audience on 20 minute vaudevillian exploration of the water. Using fun flops, a few puppetry tricks, and a lot of stage presence, he occupies the attention of a group of 0-6 year olds by showing seasons and the water cycle in turns (Wiktionary defines the collective noun for children as an “ingratitude,” but that seems like an act of sabotage by a rogue and very tired editor.)
But at the beginning of the scheduled start time, he isn’t doing that yet. He’s just hanging around in the playing area in character during the initial “exploration” time at the beginning of To the Clouds. This time is great for the audience of children to get used to the Rainmaker and the rules of the space, and it is even greater for the parents who are running late because of a 9 wipe diaper blowout or someone who insisted that a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs would make an excellent hat.
When the show gets going, To the Clouds takes the children’s attention and keeps it, which is a miracle and a blessing on its own. Bell’s fun antics give them some moments of excitement, but the non-verbal nature of the show (Bell just uses expressive sounds rather than words) keeps it from going into the frenzy of confusion that kids get with more chatty entertainment.
New stimulating objects introduced (like fuzzy plant, a colorful umbrella flower puppet, or a length of shimmering oceanic blue fabric) are carefully brought around the arc so that the children are given structured permission to interact with it. That might take the form of a left hook to the flower, or, in the case of my Shark, a gawping toothy stare and sequin groping followed by the sign and words, “More? More?”
More is probably what the Shark and I will have of Arts on the Horizon if our first experience was anything to go by. Having gone from a critic of performing arts to a critic of that brownish thing indelibly stuck to the food tray, I have a deep appreciation for a play like To the Clouds that has schedules that fit around nap time, entertains the children, and is far more friendly to adults than certain red, furry Muppet monsters that can’t be mentioned aloud for fear of provoking a hysteria.
I appreciate that To the Clouds fosters a nurturing environment as well. Thought has been put into every aspect of the show, from accessibility to structural timing to the materials used. One dad was comfortable enough to get that unmistakable sleepy nod of persons possessing insomniac infants. Not me, I had to keep my eye on the Shark and what she was keeping her eyes on at all times for the safety of others, plus the sharp physicality of the show was attention grabbing.
You can’t judge a Theater for Young Audiences play in the same way as a regular play. Nodding off a little during the play is frowned upon from anyone not titled Madame Justice in the adult theater (RBG is legendary for snoozing at DC theater premieres, and she’s earned it). But here it’s a compliment of the highest order. To the Clouds creates a safe and charming place for entertainment and retreat from the everyday for two groups of people who need those things the most.
To the Clouds, written and directed by Natasha Mirny. Featuring Justin J. Bell. Design by Ksenya Litvak. Stage Management by Laura Sperling. Produced by Arts on the Horizon . Reviewed by Alan Katz.