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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 enjoy.

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 challenge.

“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.

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