Educating Young Minds One Show at a Time: An Interview with Artistic Director Lynne Streeter Childress
Photo by Kelli Blades -- Jack (Lynne Streeter Childress) in his happy place in "The Gift of the Mad Guy" by Building Better People Productions, appearing in Annapolis on December 10.
Launching about a year ago, BBPP opened its doors to the public for its first performance in April 2016.
“The messages about what’s right and what’s wrong and all that starts very early and we want to help with that. We want to bring good things into the world, specifically children’s lives, and entertain while we do it.” – Lynne Childress
Childress started out as an Acting Apprentice at Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida, touring in shows that traveled to schools with messages about subjects such as peer pressure and conflict resolution. From then on, Childress realized instead of going back to school for her Master’s Degree, she would instead continue to build on her professional acting career.
Most recently Childress went on a national tour for the production “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day,” after performing it at the John F. Kennedy Center.
With 20 years of professional acting and teaching experience, Childress looks to continue building up BBPP and put roots into a permanent address for the theatre.
Don’t miss The Gift of the Mad Guy: A Show about Generosity, Saturday, December 10th, 11 a.m. at Friends Meeting House. Tickets are $8 online and $10 at the door for people ages three and up. Children two and under are free.
You’ve been doing theater for a long time, what drew you to that field and how did you get started working with kids in the theater?That’s a funny question. I’ve done theater in high school and some in college, but I was actually a Psychology major. I was going to be a social worker, but I could not find a job in my field. I fell back on acting, which is usually the other way around. I had moved to Miami after college and I answered an audition ad for a theater that did all kinds of shows and touring programs that went to schools and had messages like peer pressure and conflict resolution, and I thought “Ok, since I did theater in college, that’s another way of outreach”.
I got the audition and actually thought I was going to grad school to get my Master’s in social work. I deferred it because of money, but after continuing this theater work, I realized this is what I wanted to do and that’s how it began. My professional theater career began by doing shows that target young audiences. I went back and got some training. I definitely learned how hard it is and how challenging it is on my feet.
What inspired the idea to open up Building Better People Productions? How will this theater differ from other established children’s theater groups in the area?I wanted to do shows that went to schools and I had done that kind of work for other people on and off for many years. I wrote a show that was a short piece about empathy and I thought I would produce it myself and was actually going to produce it with a local theater festival, so I said I was going to just go ahead and do this. That’s how this theater started.
[I think] we listen to respond and not listen to understand, that’s why I really had been inspired to do something based on those principles, even though most shows for kids teach them not to be a jerk. I just thought overtly, but not in a cheesy way, in an honest way, that I wanted that to be the basis of the work. As far as I know in Annapolis, we are the only people who are doing professional work with professional actors solely for children. There are other professional theaters that do work. Some are for children and could be geared toward a whole family, but not really in Annapolis are there adult professional actors doing shows for just kids.
Tell me a little bit more about the directorial process. How does it differ when your audience is children compared to any general age, especially because children tend to lose interest very quickly?I have a four-year-old and try to be aware of things that could go on too long. A lot of time you don’t realize how things are hitting until you see it in front of a kid audience. I’ll realize sometimes, “Oh ok that was too wordy, need to change this and that.” I really try to draw the experiences from the people we have with us.
As I mentioned earlier, I did a show on empathy. I wrote the show and a friend of mine directed it. We were both mothers of young kids, which helped us base the play off what we knew. I think the biggest difference when you’re doing stuff for kids, is that it has to come from a place of honesty, even though you’re trying to simplify the message in a way that directly affects them. It can’t be hokey and it has to be honest.
In 1998, I was in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day” and commissioned it for the Kennedy Center—in the original show, and toured. The director said you have to be honest, there’s nothing cute about it. There has to be an honesty about it.
Do you feel that children learn better when they see a performance rather than just being taught in school on how to be a good person? Why do you feel this method executes better?I don’t know if would say better, but I would say it is as effective. I think they need to hear it from both sides. They need to see it every day with teachers or parents modeling that while also seeing it as entertainment.
I grew up as a kid in the ’70s and ’80s with “School House Rock,” it was a cartoon Saturday mornings on ABC. It was all about teaching history and the Constitution. A lot of us know the Constitution because there was a song on “School House Rock.” Even if we heard it in school, because we also saw it in entertainment, something stuck. The fact it was given to us as fun, made it stick. I think that both are important, but it hits you in different ways than just being told to you.
If someone asked you why they should bring their kids to your theater, what would you tell them?We’re funny and its good, quality entertainment. I know everyone can say that, but we’re quality and we know what we’re doing. We also know that childhood is the foundation of our lives and all the messages you receive. That’s where the name Building Better People Productions came from. The messages about what’s right and what’s wrong, all that starts very early and we want to help with that. We want to bring good things into the world, specifically children’s lives, and entertain while we do it.
While being the director of a theater can be a difficult task, are you still working as a performer or have you moved on to just directing? If you have stopped performing, what do you miss most about being on stage instead of behind the curtain?I am doing both. I’m actually in our current Christmas show. The show we did about empathy I was in the original cast and I’m kind of the understudy now. I’m not doing a lot of performing for other groups right now, even though I’d be open to that. I’m more concentrated on building this theater up. I’m still writing, performing, and producing.
How do you balance directing a theater while also practicing for your own performances?I’m reading this book called It’s Hard to Make a Difference when You Can’t Find Your Keys. It’s about organization. I’ve been doing a lot with trying to stick with a schedule, looking at my schedule for the week, keeping good to-do lists, deciding what’s important, and looking at everything I have to do and when I have to do it.
For people who are naturally gifted that way in sticking to schedules, that may seem very redundant. But, for me trying to do this, be a wife, a mom, and sing at my church and everything else, it’s really about having a good schedule and also, sort of being there respecting other people’s time.
Where are you hoping to take Building Better People Productions over the next few years?I would love to have our own space. Right now, my office is in my home. We are renting places to do shows and renting places to do classes and I would love to have an identifiable space in the community where people know where we are.
I just want more of a presence here. I want to do more with the community groups here. I want to add to the fabric in a good way in Annapolis. We’ve been at this for about five years and this is where we chose to buy a home and raise our family. I want to add good things and be more a part of the community.