Putting Kids At Center Stage
Barrett Lindsay-Steiner's Children's Theater Brings Down The House
If you think all children’s theater productions
are chronically cute affairs, you haven’t been to a Barrett
Lindsay-Steiner show. Genuinely entertaining musicals like Johnny
Rocket: Space Cadet, North Pole Mania, and The Not-Very-Secret Garden
are the kind of shows that acutely cute-weary parents can actually
Lindsay-Steiner, ebullient, sometimes acerbic, but
always filled with exuberant energy, has to be the best-known director
of children’s theater in the East Bay. He has led workshops for
thousands of preteen and teenaged kids at schools and arts
organizations all over Contra Costa for the past 16 years. The classes
last several weeks, and each culminates in a play.
Just trying to catch up with him can be
exhausting. Mondays he teaches two programs at the Contra Costa Jewish
Community Center in Walnut Creek. Tuesdays he’s in Lafayette at Stanley
Middle School. Wednesdays it’s off to Seven Hills School in Walnut
Creek, and Thursdays he’s in Danville at St. Isidore’s. If it’s Friday
he’s at Happy Valley School in Lafayette, and Saturdays he oversees the
Diablo Light Opera Company’s Starstruck program for youths.
“I am the luckiest man in the world,”
Lindsay-Steiner says. “I get to do writing, singing, teaching,
graphics, sewing—all those things are part of my life. I wake up at six
in the morning, and I just bounce out of bed because I am so happy to
do what I do. My work is who I am.”
He sees about a thousand kids every year. This
summer he participated in 17 plays as writer, director, or both, and in
2004 he was involved in 45 productions. And we’re not talking the usual
kiddie fare. He plays up the talents of his young actors, offering them
lines packed with sly, Toy Story-esque inside jokes. “His plays have so
much wit that appeals to the parents,” says Ellen Smith, producer of
the Starstruck program.
Often the humor is so sophisticated that he needs
to explain the quips (like what it means if “your epidermis is
showing”) to the young thespians who deliver them. “I’ll tell them,
‘This line is going to get a laugh,’ and they ask, ‘Why?’ ” he says.
Lindsay-Steiner, 47, fell in love with the world
of theater when he was a student at Campolindo High in Moraga, and was
about 15 years old when he wrote his first song. Since then, he has
poured his whimsy and dry humor out into hundreds of songs and dozens
of musicals, “like a bad sewage pipe,” he says.
Cole Porter was one of his role models, and
Cynthia Myers, a director who has worked with Lindsay-Steiner on youth
programs for several years, thinks of him as our answer to Noël Coward.
“He is a gifted author, composer, and lyricist who never seems to run
out of ideas,” she says.
A gourmet chef and inveterate world traveler as
well as a gifted performer, Lindsay-Steiner brings a wealth of
inspiration into his work. Historical references and classic word play
mix easily with broad comedy in his well-crafted yet breezy musicals.
Given his own inexhaustible energy, it’s not
surprising that Lindsay-Steiner sees theater as a terrific way to focus
the sometimes-daunting energy of 10-year-olds. To him, this brand of
theater is the ultimate learning opportunity, teaching kids not just
how to sing and act, but also giving them life skills: confidence, good
diction, vocabulary, trust in their colleagues, and most of all, the
ability to take risks and have them pay off in a big way. By his own
account, he sets high expectations, and the kids rise to meet the
“He empowers the individual and highlights their strengths,” says Myers, “He lets them explore who they are as people.”
“I treat [kids] like equals,” Lindsay-Steiner
says. “And it’s not much different from directing professional actors.
I tell them, ‘You have to be on the ball. We have 10 rehearsals to put
together an hour-and-fifteen-minute show with three casts. A lot of
people will say this can’t be done, and we have to prove them wrong.’ ”
North Pole Revue, written by Lindsay-Steiner, hits
the stage this month at Pleasant Hill’s Winslow Center. For tickets,
call the Pleasant Hill Parks and Recreation Department District Office
at (925) 682-0896.