Ovation nods to Rancho Cucamonga’s MainStreet


Photo by Ed Krieger

(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)

Bring your kids to the 2012 Ovation Awards – they’ve finally got something to root for.

A producer of family-oriented fare, MainStreet Theatre Company has been nominated for four Ovation Awards. The company, funded and run through the city of Rancho Cucamonga at Lewis Family Playhouse, received four nominations in the large-theater categories. Three of the nods were for the group’s May staging of A Wrinkle in Time — production of a play,John Zalewski for sound design, and Brian Gale for lighting design. The fourth was for Tom Buderwitz‘s scenic design in a production in October 2011 of Honus and Me.

For a company whose audience is mostly made up of schoolchildren and their families, the recognition is especially gratifying. MainStreet producer Mireya (Murry) Hepner says her mission has always been to produce shows that are on par with adult theater, so to be honored alongside shows like Waiting for Godot is “huge.”

“My big thing is integrity, and I always say that we do shows in a very sophisticated way. I didn’t want to come in and do children’s theater as what people think of as children’s theater,” Hepner says. “I wanted to do theater and it happens to be for young audiences.”

Rancho Cucamonga founded MainStreet Theatre seven years ago through its community services department, which provides the majority of the funds for productions (in addition to grants and ticket sales). Hepner is the only full-time staff member, and she and her stage crew are city employees.

All shows — three every year, each based on a popular work of classic or contemporary children’s literature and geared toward a different age group — perform at the 560-seat Lewis Family Playhouse, built in 2006 in the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center. During the week, school groups attend matinee performances.

One particular challenge of family theater, Hepner notes, is to maintain an audience when the shows are meant for children. Unlike adults, kids’ tastes change dramatically as they get older and most kids eventually outgrow children’s theater.

“We are constantly having to get new people in,” Hepner says. “My challenge is to pick a season where the little kids have something for them and the kids that are getting older still have something that’s for them. Kids that are five and kids that are 10 might not necessarily like the same thing.”

MainStreet also aims to dispel the notion that theater for kids is necessarily any less meaningful or artistic than shows for adults.

“I think that’s the hardest thing for me — to get people to realize that it’s not a place where you drop off your kids and it’s like a babysitting thing. It’s theater,” Hepner says.

Based on its recognition by the Ovation Awards, MainStreet’s production of the Madeleine L’Engle classic A Wrinkle in Time seems to have succeeded in doing just that. The adaptation is by John Glore, associate artistic director of South Coast Repertory, which produced it in 2010. The MainStreet version was directed by Robert Castro.

Castro’s vision for the set design elevated the material from a children’s book to an “opera”-like production, Hepner says. She even received letters from kids after they’d seen the show featuring detailed drawings of the nuances of the set.

“I can’t even describe it, it was so spectacular, so beautiful. It was very clear; there were hardly any props. Just actors on stage, light and some projection and costumes and sound,” Hepner says. “It was clean, beautiful, sophisticated storytelling. I think it resonated with people because they didn’t expect that from a theater for young audiences.”

Castro says he read the book for the first time in order to prepare for the show (his fourth with MainStreet) and was inspired by L’Engle’s references to American culture from the ancient Mayans to the present day.

“It really reminded me of the holistic worldview that the ancient Americans had — social, political, economic, philosophical, spiritual, science,” Castro says. “What’s so beautiful about it is it comes from this womb, this world called A Wrinkle in Time, and at the center of it is that heartbeat, a kind of pure, relentless beating heart that is at the core of everything that Madeleine L’Engle does as an artist and as a person.”

The material posed unusual challenges for a stage production — how to portray time-traveling, or a show character’s transformation from old woman to centaur — but those challenges ultimately fueled the creative team’s determination to unpack some of the book’s complex themes. Castro says his and the other designers’ mission was to create a show that could be enjoyed on many different levels.

“It could be a girl looking for her father. It could be a wild, crazy, Mad Hatter ride. Or it could be a deeply profound piece on how we see ourselves in in the world we live in, our own landscape, and maybe there’s other realities out there, other possibilities. Can you relate to those? Can you open your heart to them? Can you learn from them?” Castro says. “We were really interested in having multiple experiences occurring simultaneously, in terms of wherever someone could jump into this story.”

Castro will team up with MainStreet to direct two more plays in the next two seasons. First up is Aladdin’s Luck next January, followed by MainStreet’s first commissioned work, a collaboration with playwright Luis Alfaro, for the 2013-14 season. The play is set to be an adaptation of Aesop’s Fables told through a modern, Chicano perspective.

For now, MainStreet is deep into performances of Pinkalicious, staged by Sha Newman, a musical adaptation of the wildly popular children’s book that Hepner says is “completely the opposite” of A Wrinkle in Time. It tells the story of a young girl who turns pink after eating cupcakes and features tap dancing, puppets, blues and gospel music and bright colors for MainStreet’s youngest audience.

Hepner and Castro hope that their Ovation nominations inspire the theater community to take notice of the quality of work being produced at MainStreet and other family theater companies.

“What I’m hoping is people better understand that children’s theater isn’t just that stepchild of theater proper — it’s maybe one of the most important aspects of the theater community, because it’s the beginnings and origins of theatergoers and perhaps more important, theater-makers,” Castro says. “If we’re all trying to create theater that could transform and shape the culture of America, it starts with the children. We should see those productions and the work for young audiences as vital and necessary to the progress and success of future generations.”

“I think that theater for young audiences or families sometimes has a stigma attached — as though it can’t be taken as seriously, or somehow isn’t of the same caliber as theater that is only for an adult audience,” Hepner says. “I hope that this recognition will dispel that stigma, and that all sorts of people who might have been reluctant to make the trip out to Rancho Cucamonga will be curious enough to come and see what we’re doing.”

And, couldn’t Pinkalicious win MainStreet’s next Ovation nomination?

“You never know,” Hepner says with a laugh. “You never know.”

Pinkalicious the Musical, MainSteet Theatre Company at Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Drive, Rancho Cucamonga, 91739. Sat 1 pm and 4 pm; Sun 1 pm.  Through Oct. 21. www.lewisfamilyplayhouse.com909-477-2752.

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