Lynne Streeter Childress remembers the day her eighth grade history teacher was talking about the Constitution and the class spontaneously broke out in a song from a 1975 episode of TV’s “Schoolhouse Rock.”
“Everyone started singing, ‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,’” she said. “It’s why we know how a bill becomes a law. It’s because of that.”
When you first meet the identical twin of the person who sits next to you at work, the feeling can be, well, a little odd.
So when Childress walked into the Annapolis space where her small theater company, Building Better People Productions, will perform its first in-person show since the start of the pandemic, my temptation was to ask her about her sister, Baltimore Banner columnist Leslie Gray Streeter.
But Childress has her own story to tell. It’s fair to say that “Schoolhouse Rock” — the 50-year-old daytime children’s program that mixed math, language and civics with earworm-inducing songs and animation — influenced that story with more than legislative process details.
“I’m 51, and so the after-school specials in the ’80s were a big thing, right? It’s all that drama, theater or movies or whatever, with a message, right? This is what this is. And I love that.”
Childress is sitting at ArtFarm Studios, the performance gallery-studio-classroom center in Annapolis. On Saturday, it will be the setting for a production of “Dream House: A Rainy Day Play.” It’s a milestone for her, but in some ways for others, too.
The performance for children comes as there is a budding return of children’s theater. Performers are back in schools, and plays with young casts are back on stage.
“Our schools are really busy for artists right now,” said Lacey Sheppard, an arts integration specialist with Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “Schools are really hungry for it.”
It was by no means a sure thing. Not everyone was able to shift to online performances during the pandemic. Now that it appears to be returning, although how it all plays out remains uncertain.
“Maybe I’m very Pollyannaish on this, but I can’t see people not wanting entertainment for their kids and their schools. I can’t see them not wanting that,” Childress said. “What I see is that — this is just a guess — what’s going to change is the kind of things that people are looking for, or maybe [what is] going to change is how it’s delivered.
“I feel like people are trying to figure out what normal is.”
Companies like Building Better People Productions represent a special kind of theater. They write, direct and perform plays for schools and libraries, or in small settings like ArtFarm Studios. Like “Schoolhouse Rock” was on ABC, it’s programming with an educational component not often found in theater aimed at adults.
“It helps them find a voice,” Childress said. “I love watching shy kids being given the opportunity to be silly, with no judgment. I love that kind of working with kids who are acting. ... I like seeing the wheels start turning.”
Ask people who make a living doing this kind of work and they all have reasons for staying with it.
“The work we do is like a house, right?” said Arianna Ross, CEO and a performer at Story Tapestries. “If the families are the people who live in the house, the arts program impacts their social, emotional well-being. We see that a lot. We see a direct impact on children’s mental health and [their parents’] mental health, their ability to express themselves effectively and clearly to talk, you know, to understand and manage conflict. Theater models it and we see it when we teach workshops.”
That is true in “Dream House,” a play by Jeremy Gable. It follows the story of a young woman named Jenn who inherits her childhood home and begins the process of selling it, only to rediscover herself.
“I was really excited when Lynne called me and said we want to put it back on. It’s a beautiful piece, a one-woman show, which is very challenging, but also very rewarding,” said actress Taylor Payne, who will perform the role of Jenn.
“It deals a lot with anxiety and facing your fears, but it does it in a way where it’s not just about facing your fears and your anxieties. It’s also about acknowledging them and where they come from.”
During the worst of the pandemic, many people who dedicate part or all of their lives to theatre for young audiences found themselves without work
“When COVID hit, a lot of the performers lost almost all their income,” said Susan Baum, grants director for the Anne Arundel County Arts Council.
Some schools around the state shifted to online performances and workshops. Anne Arundel schools left programming up to individual schools, and, in many cases, teachers took on roles previously played by outside artists.
Some companies, such as the Children’s Theater of Annapolis, returned to in-person work before others. It staged “Matilda” last fall and “Peter and the Star Catcher” starting this weekend, in large part because it operates its own theater for performances and students play all the roles.
Still, there remains a risk of contracting COVID in an environment where children find it difficult to wear masks and actors find it more effective to work without them. That, and financial pressures, may explain why some have yet to return to the field.
“Yesterday, we were in a site and there were a couple of kids that went home with COVID at 9 a.m.,” Ross said. “So, when you’re working with families and children, the likelihood that you’re gonna get exposed to COVID is extremely high.”
Schools choose from lists of artists compiled by the county and the Maryland State Arts Council, vetted for appropriate themes and the ability to work with students from a variety of backgrounds. Funding comes from schools, grants and fundraisers hosted by PTAs and other groups.
One recent program was a weeklong, artist in residence program at Bates Middle School, where Kevin Martin of Rockcreek Steel Drums focused on the math involved in making and tuning his instruments.
Childress is a well-known figure in this world. She opened her Annapolis theater company in 2016 and has performed, directed and written plays. Encore Theatre Company in Arlington, Virginia, has started rehearsals for one of her works.
She thinks a few more performances of “Dream House” might be her final in-theatre production, and foresees a shift to more work for schools and libraries.
Part of her decision is that staging theater is expensive, but kids haven’t returned to independent classes and summer camps as she had hoped.
“It was just very interesting that … there were a lot less people, it seemed to me, than usually do those things,” Childress said. “And you know, I don’t know that we haven’t gotten the bookings that I would have hoped so far. I think it seems to me that people are still kind of figuring it out.”
“Dream House: A Rainy Day Play” will be performed at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday at ArtFarm Studios, 111 Chinquapin Round Rd, Suite 200 in Annapolis. Tickets for Anne Arundel County Public Schools students and their families at the 1 p.m. show are $5. Tickets for the 4 p.m. show are $15 in advance or $17 at the door. Purchase tickets online at bbpproductions.com.