Imagine walking into a room of more than 35 children and being able to hear a pin drop. Many parents can't imagine their 5- to 12-year-olds sitting for 50 minutes without a cry, antsy movement or a trip to the restroom.
But at Sprouts Children's Theatre at Creative Spark Center for the Arts in Mount Pleasant, children are so mesmerized by the professional adult actors who perform in front of them that even a brief hour can take them to lands only in their imagination. And their parents go along on the fascinating trip with them.
In the beginning
Sprouts Children's Theatre blossomed locally in January 2010 when five-time children's theater award winner Stan Gill received a call in Seattle from his close friend and Creative Spark's executive director, Carol Antman. Antman needed help giving new life to the multifaceted artistic center and asked Gill for assistance.
Gill moved his life and his theater to the Lowcountry to build the program that he had immersed himself in since the 1970s. A humble man who shies away from attention, Gill has a long, creative resume. The Michigan native was 15 when he received his first assignment from children's theater director and producer Henry K. Martin, who would trust Gill with an entire production from hiring to set design and the script itself.
Gill admits it was in his teens that he was bitten by the theater bug. "I'm originally a scientist, but when I saw all the pretty girls, I realized theater was a cool way to meet them," Gill says with a smile, reflecting back to his early years.
Even after many different incarnations of Sprouts since the '70s and '80s, Gill's vision has been clear: to bring quality children's theater, acted by professional adult actors, to children and theirparents. Gill writes all the scripts, lyrics and some of the music, but often leaves the music to his collaborators. His shows are original, playing off childhood fairy tales and fables.
"People come to us saying this is the best theater they have ever seen. Not children's theater -- just theater. We try to do a lot of things in the show that are fun for everyone," says Gill. "But truly, I love the children's faces during the show. When you're doing something silly, dramatic or even scary, you look down and the kids are reflecting exactly what you're doing. They're completely there."
There's no elevated stage, just a carpet where the kids sit close to the seasoned actors, gazing in awe while their parents sit in the back enjoying the performance just as much as the little ones.
There are only six performances for each production run, which are at 7 p.m. Fridays, 1 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $10 in advance or $12 at the door.
But for local mom of three Amy Parr, a season pass is a must.
"It's a totally hidden secret and we love it," says Parr. "We go out to dinner on Friday nights and then come to the show. I don't think people realize how fantastic it really is here. It's so interactive."
Parr's daughter, 7-year-old Ella, is taking musical theater at Creative Spark and sits quietly on the front row waiting for each performance with her 5-year-old brother, Ryder. Amy sits in the back with her 4-month-old son, Vance, who barely makes a peep during the performance.
Each adult actor has an aura of their own, especially Krissy McKown, local Creative Spark board member, veteran actor and adjunct professor at the Charleston School of Law. McKown has helped Gill since he first arrived in the Lowcountry and appears in almost all of his productions.
"There's nothing like this in Charleston. We use all local talent and always make sure our performances have a moral to the story," says McKown. "Sprouts is all about the art, passion and introducing kids to the experience."
After each show, the actors emerge from the stage to greet all the children and even pose for photos with them while still in character. During a recent performance of the European classic "The Musicians of Bremen," Gill played not only the part of director but also dressed in full costume in the role of the Donkey.
Somewhat like "The Wizard of Oz," "The Musicians of Bremen" showcases a handful of animal misfits that are discarded and make their way to a new life. The misfits encounter a group of crooks that makes its fortune from thievery. The kids are encouraged to sing along during the performance, and most sing at the tops of their lungs.
Story behind the story
In the end, the children learn life lessons, such as the proper way to treat others, how to get along with others who aren't like you and that the life of a thief is no way to live. These have been woven into the story by Gill.
"When the children watch, they realize that one day, they can get up on stage and be someone else. It's amazing to see when the concept of theater enters their brain," says McKown, who teaches entertainment law. "There's a shortage of family-friendly activities that don't cost an arm and a leg. The shows are growing in popularity, and so are our musical theater classes."
And more parents are discovering Sprouts. Daniel Island mom Ellie Clay took her two daughters, Laila, 6, and Edie, 3, to see Sprouts for the first time. "It was a great time. My 6-year-old already asked when we're seeing another one," Clay laughs.
Upcoming shows include "The Princess and the Pea" and "The Frog Prince." Gill admits that the hardest part is overcoming the misconception that Sprouts is a children's theater with child actors.
"Occasionally, we will have a child in the performance, but they are professional with years of acting experience," he says. "However, the rest are all professional performers for the children."
When the curtain closed on "The Musicians of Bremen," the children clapped with enthusiasm and scurried out the door to meet the actors, Mom and Dad in tow chasing behind them.
As Ella and Ryder Parr stood in line for their chance to say hello to the characters, Ryder said, "I liked it, my favorite is Rooster. Cock-a-doodle do!"
And mom Amy giggled, "He'll be doing that for weeks!"