Urban Baby Moira McNeel watches The Magik Theatre's production of "Wake Up Brother Bear." Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Urban Baby Moira McNeel watches The Magik Theatre's production of "Wake Up Brother Bear." Photo by Bekah McNeel.

When I think of a typical live theatre audience, there are several demographics missing. For instance, the very young. How young, you ask? Well, I never imagined my Urban Baby among the audience members.

But at the dress rehearsal of “Wake Up, Brother Bear,” there we were with around 15 other children under 5 years old. (To be fair, Moira is technically younger than the target audience, which is 1 to 5-year-olds.) As bags of participatory props were handed out, I waited for chaos to ensue. Instead, the play instantly swept them into the show with a mix of visual, musical, tactile, and emotive stimulation.

“Wake Up, Brother Bear” will premiere at The Pearl Studio on Dec. 13 and run Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m. Dec. 13, 14, 20, and 21.  Following the holiday season, the show will be available for touring to daycare centers, libraries and schools throughout South Texas.

I may take Moira again. As a parent, there are few things more gratifying than watching your child fully delight in an activity.

“The story needs children in order to make it happen. When we were writing (and) devising the piece, we had in mind the attention span of that age group, so we tried to have something for audiences to physically engage with every three to five minutes. We also knew we had to come up with great moments that are incredibly fun to just sit and watch,” said Rex Daugherty, the actor who developed the character as the original Brother Bear at Imagination Stage.

The play, developed by Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md., uses interactive props to move the children through the seasons. Guiding them are a bubbly Sister Bear and her pre-verbal little Brother Bear, who engages the the wee ones with physical comedy.

“I had originally planned on a Charlie Chaplin-style walk (for Brother Bear), but when we had our first audience, I noticed the toddlers who were so awkwardly cute with their half walk, half stumble, so I instantly adopted that physicality for the role,” Daugherty said. “Brother Bear is, after all, a very young bear (he doesn’t know how to talk yet), so basing him off of a 1.5-year old was really helpful for the story. For me, the secret to playing Brother Bear is that he isn’t in a kid’s play. He’s a clown – and I mean that in the classical discipline of theater sense. To this day, he is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played because it required a lot of skill and physical ability.”

Rex Daugherty
Rex Daugherty. Courtesy photo.

The kids respond so emphatically that in the final winter scene, when Brother Bear sweetly offers his blanket to shivering Sister Bear, they are inevitably compelled to initiate acts of kindness that will leave their attending adults with tears in their eyes. I, for one, was quite misty.

Even Moira, who has almost no ability to follow a story, was enraptured by shadow play, billowing fabrics, and flickering “fire flies.” She danced to the simple, classical string music, and squealed with excitement while Brother Bear chased a fish. Older children in the room participated in the simple plot, cueing the characters, and responding to questions.

“One helpful thing is that we freed ourselves from being too linear. Children that young aren’t as aware of plot and character development as they are with movement and emotion. In this way, ‘Brother Bear’ was more like choreographing a dance than writing a traditional script,” Daugherty said.

The result is actually quite beautiful, and excellent evidence for The Magik Theatre‘s belief that theater arts can be a transformative force for good in the lives of young people.

Shelley Weber of The Magik Theatre, Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Shelley Weber of The Magik Theatre, Photo by Bekah McNeel.

In addition to this Theater for the Very Young, there are seven active educational programs under the guidance of Shelley Weber, the theater’s director of education and outreach. Spanning a range of ages and settings, the educational programming reaches out across the city to inspire.

Tasked with the scope and educational integrity of The Magik Theatre’s offerings, Weber is constantly asking the question, “Are we still sharing our art with everyone?”

That question and these ideas of “sharing” and “everyone” has driven the program into a year of incredible growth in both depth and breadth.

A San Antonio native, Weber brings with her knowledge and experience gleaned from Washington, D.C., and New York City, where she worked for the last five years in theater management in some of the country’s most prestigious companies, including the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Arena Stage. She is also an educator with a master’s degree in education from Trinity University. She taught for several years at Bonham Academy. Her energy infuses the educational programming with bold goals and best practices, seen across the portfolio of programs.

Between the Acting and Creativity Academy and Camp Showbiz, the theater offers year-round opportunities for young people ages 3-17 to learn theater arts. Whether on stage or behind the scenes, the main goal is that the students learn confidence and creativity that will blossom in any pursuit.

Camp Showbiz is the summer and school break juggernaut that last summer took 754 kids and gave them top-quality theatrical experience to launch not only interest in the arts, but to boost confidence and creativity in all pursuits.

The academy started in 2005 and quickly emerged as a place to “fit in” for students who did not have a social niche in their schools. One hidden loss as the arts programming in schools becomes more and more anemic is the cultural belonging for artistic students. At The Magik Theatre, they suddenly found like-minded peers and the opportunity to showcase their gifts in a show at the end of each semester. 

Creative expression is a benefit of all fine arts. Students who find their language in the arts are less likely to drop out, and do better in other subjects as well. Fine arts programming is championed by the many arts organizations and institutions stepping in to fill the gap left by gutted education budgets in the state.

Urban Baby Moira McNeel with Shelley Weber at Wake Up Brother Bear. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Urban Baby Moira McNeel with Shelley Weber at “Wake Up, Brother Bear.” Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Theater arts in particular encourage self-possession, confidence, social skills, and communication. Awakening the self-esteem in a student has a positive impact on his or her classroom performance.

Theater arts are included in the fine arts Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), which means that schools must find a way to meet a standard of exposure for their students. The Magik Theatre aligns its education curriculum to those TEKS in an effort to become a resource for local schools as well as a source of enrichment for the community.

Artists-in-residence and educator workshops invest in the schools on an instructional level.

The artists in residence are theater staff on loan to schools to serve as theater arts teachers. Rackspace has underwritten the program at Roosevelt High School, and the King William Association brought it to Brackenridge High School. St. Luke’s Episcopal School has also participated.

Educator workshops cover a range of topics. When a class is scheduled to attend a show at  the theater, Weber’s team provides standards-based curriculum guides to help teachers connect field trips to classroom learning. Beyond that, they offer training to help educators enhance their theater arts curriculum and do more with less in lighting, set design, and other technical aspects of production.

X-celerated Theatre is, perhaps more than any other, the boldest proof of the faith that Weber and her team have in the influential power of theater arts.

Inherited from a partnership with the Firelight Players and their relationship with the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center, X-celerated Theatre is a rehabilitative program designed for at-risk youth. Residents of the Bexar County Krier Correctional Treatment Center, Mission Road Center for girls, and Ayers House spend time with mentors who give them a theater arts course culminating in the performance of original works.

Over the course of the program mentors emphasize empathy, team work, and communication skills. These and other executive functions are necessary for successful theatre production, so it’s a natural vehicle for equipping the youth for success in life.

It’s also common for the writing process to prove cathartic. Weber said the challenge with the teenage boys is to get to the story behind the slapstick exterior. With the girls, the challenge is more often to incorporate hope and resilience into their emotive themes.

At the end of the year, the students are allowed to produce their play at the theater, and their families are invited to watch.

The Magik Theatre is committed to modeling the many benefits professional theater brings to a city. They hire Equity actors and take their craft seriously, which improves the quality of what they are able to offer young people. It makes a difference. Young people inherently sense commitment and quality. The success of The Magik Theatre is at the hands of an unwittingly discerning audience.

*Featured/top image: Urban Baby Moira McNeel watches The Magik Theatre’s production of “Wake Up, Brother Bear.” Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.