Center Stage

Theater for young audiences ushers in new era of innovative show biz.

Celebrating four decades of refreshingly imaginative theater for young audiences, Tempe-based Childsplay sets to launch its 40th anniversary season with new artistic leadership. Having thrived under the dynamic direction of founder David Saar, who recently stepped down from his role as artistic director, the internationally renowned troupe prepares to carry out Saar’s unique vision while embracing today’s rapidly changing culture.

“We want to continue to develop and present strikingly original theater for our audiences,” says Dwayne Hartford, Childsplay’s new artistic director. “The world is changing so rapidly, and the lives of our audiences are changing so fast that we have to keep up and keep presenting plays that mean something to them.”

In keeping with Childsplay’s mission to educate as much as to entertain, the company continues to expand its community outreach programs.

“Education and learning is an important part of everything we do,” says Hartford. “Our education program has become a vital part of our company over the last 10 years.”

As part of its vast educational efforts, Childsplay offers enriching programs to children throughout Arizona. In addition to offering high-quality, professional productions at Tempe Center for the Arts featuring innovative adaptations of children’s classics and unique plays about relevant social issues,
Childsplay performs in hundreds of Arizona schools annually. The ensemble hosts field trips, offers arts education programs in schools, and provides professional development for teachers.

For children who wish to pursue acting outside of school, the Childsplay Theater Academy offers theatrical training to more than 1,500 students each year. The program offers drama classes for preschool students as well as a multi-tiered conservatory program for students seeking advanced training.

“Childsplay’s mission says we create strikingly original theater that is arrived at the intersection of artistry and learning,” says managing director Steve Martin. “When we look at doing a play, we ask ourselves a lot of questions. What are the communities we’re going to serve with this piece of theater? What are the learning opportunities?”

For example, says Martin, when Childsplay performs a play about food insecurity among families, the ensemble partners with food banks or other organizations to ensure there are resources available to audience members who wish to learn more. Performing a play centered on the theme of teen depression and suicide might involve engaging the help of a mental health association to offer audiences additional information and resources.

“We make sure that every play that we do has some sort of social service partnership or education partnership tied to it,” says Martin.

Each year, Childsplay entertains and educates 200,000 children and families in Arizona. Its high level of artistic quality and arts education programs have been supported by local and national sponsors including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Hearst Foundation, the Shubert Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Recently, the United States Department of Education awarded a $1 million grant to the company to provide drama tools for teachers to promote literacy.

Childsplay has also received Governor’s Arts Awards for Education and has been recognized by the Tempe Chamber of Commerce for its business acumen. Just last year, David Saar received the coveted Shelley Award for his contributions to advancing the arts in the state of Arizona.

“When David created this company many years ago, he had this vision of an ensemble working together towards this mission of bringing the best exciting theater to kids,” says Hartford. “ We’re all very excited to carry on his vision into the future.”

Story by Leigh Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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