A stimulating play for kids, by kids

After a decade of producing plays for Philadelphia children, Stimulus Children's Theater decided to try something different this year: an entertaining and educational play by Philadelphia children.

The result was a production like no other in the company's history: "A Philadelphia Children's Story," which made its campus debut in performances Nov. 13 and 14. A collection of four one-act plays, the show features stories about growing up, honesty, learning to live with others, history, and a blob of artificially-flavored blue Jell-O come to life.

The play began as a suggestion from a Stimulus alumnus based on a summer-camp program in which campers wrote stories that were turned into plays. "We discussed [the project] for a few weeks, whether we had the energy" to pull it off, said director Matt Bravo (C'00), a three-year Stimulus veteran. "It was taking Stimulus where we wanted to go, but where we've never been before."

The play was a real - but exciting - departure for the troupe.

Ariel Birnbaum (center) and Matt Bravo unleash the kid inside them along with cast members of "A Philadelphia Children's Story" (top), from left to right: Pablo Schklowsky (C'01), Courtney Granwell (C'99), Matt Courey (W'01), John Holzman (EAS'00) and Ailea Villanueva (C'02).

Photo by Candace diCarlo

For starters, the show was a true group-participation project. "We cast this show without a script," said co-director Ariel Birnbaum (C'00), who was so taken by the idea of a cast-written script that she signed up to co-direct after it was approved. "It actually improved the show, because the actors had a hand in putting the script together."

The source materials for the script were stories written by Philadelphia public-school students. For these, the co-directors could draw on a number of connections. "My mother is a principal at Masterman [Lab School]," Bravo said, "so I had one way to get material. Also, a lot of Penn tutors have connections to Stimulus." Some of the tutors' charges contributed raw material.

"We asked them to write about anything," Bierbaum said, but to help the process along, the directors offered some suggestions, such as stories about themselves, their families or their neighborhoods. Two of the four plays - "Grandfather and the Owl" and "Lisa and the Stolen Ring" - were adapted directly from individual stories; the other two - "Growing Up" and "How the Liberty Bell Broke" - were crafted from pieces of several different stories.

As with all Stimulus productions, "A Philadelphia Children's Story" delivers serious messages in an entertaining package. As Bravo explained, "We try to have a moral in each show, but with children's theater you have to have some craziness in there to keep [the audience's] attention.

"If you give them the big zany things, they'll get all the other stuff - they know what to pull out of it."

And that is where the blue Jell-O, among other things, comes in.

The character came from a story called "The Thing in the Refrigerator," about a misunderstood creature that needed love and friendship. In the finished play, the blue Jell-O is transformed into a historical figure that plays a key role in the tale of how the Liberty Bell got its crack.

And the kids eat it up - and get the point. A typical Stimulus performance includes a chance for the audience to meet and talk with the actors afterward, and as Bravo said, "You might be doing a show nd the kids don't seem to get the message, but when you ask them later, they know. They even pick up things we don't know about."

In addition to performing at Penn, Stimulus presents its shows at schools, service agencies and recreation centers across the city.

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Originally published on December 3, 1998