Wave your magic scarf, say your magic word and let’s see if the show will start. 1, 2, 3 … It worked!”
Thus begins another Gemini Children’s Theater production.
Children have been waving colorful “magic” scarves to start the shows, to mop John Smith’s deck, to clean Cinderella’s house, to joust with King Pellinore and to fly with Peter Pan for 18 years in the basement black-box theater at The Factory in Point Breeze. But come May 2015, Gemini’s lease will end, so its leaders are seeking an affordable new home for their unique and wonderful interactive children’s theater.
Founded by Lani Cataldi and Dennis Palko, Gemini’s true magic is its respect for children. Ms. Cataldi and Mr. Palko set out to create an experience for children that fostered imagination, creativity and love for theater. Unlike any other children’s theater I know, Gemini focuses on both the children who attend the shows and the children who are in the shows.
Each show has a cast and staff of professional adults supplemented by children ages 10 and up who are chosen by audition. The young participants are treated as equals with the professionals and are expected to act accordingly. Thus, young cast members learn by immersion both backstage and onstage the importance of theater etiquette, of following directions from the director and stage manager, of focus and hard work. They also are trained to interact appropriately with children in the audience — as in, never drag a reluctant child to the stage, even if he is your little brother.
Of course, it is the children in the audience for whom the hard work is done. Gemini’s goal is to engross them in the story, not just by watching but also by dancing with the toys in Geppetto’s workshop or guiding Alice along her way in Wonderland.
The wide-eyed faces of the children on the front row benches are often just as engaging as the action on stage, particularly when several anxious children shout out to characters who are lost or in danger.
They are particularly excited to “meet” the characters outside the theater after the show — well, not so much the witches, wicked stepmothers and evil wizards. In spite of Captain Hook’s welcoming smile, many a child hides behind a comforting adult’s back as they pass by the bad guys.
Gemini Children’s Theater knows how to bring fairy tales to life. None of its stories are Disney-esque. And Gemini’s casting is stereotype-blind. Cinderella has had brown skin and black hair, Mr. Smee has been played numerous times by the fantastic book-and-child-loving Betty Dell Stockhausen and princesses can be older than 30. What a powerful message to children that they really can be whatever they want to be, regardless of what they look like.
Mostly written by Mr. Palko and executive director Jill Jeffrey, the scripts are based on original texts, often with lines coming right out of the books. The costuming and sets are exquisite, all hand-crafted by Ms. Cataldi, T.J. Firneno, Ryan Westwood and countless student volunteers. And Ms. Cataldi’s catchy music practically begs the audience to join in. I can still sing the “Dig, Chip” song from Snow White a decade after having seen it.
My family has experienced Gemini’s magic for the last 10-plus years. First my children were the mesmerized little ones in the audience waving magic scarves. As they got older, all three of them were given the opportunity to perform in Gemini productions. I watched as they formed fast friendships with cast members of all ages and worked hard, enduring long night rehearsals day after day for a month before a show, learning so much about stagecraft on and off the set and feeling quite professional as they signed autographs after the shows. Each and every show was a fantastic experience, and I loved watching their confidence grow.
I can’t imagine Pittsburgh without Gemini Children’s Theater. It has connected our children to stories and brought to them a love of theater, appreciation and respect for others’ unique gifts and, yes, magic.
I look forward to Gemini continuing to do so for years to come. With a little bit of magic from the Pittsburgh community, the show will certainly go on in a new venue. If you want to learn more, check out www.geminitheater.org. Then wave your magic scarf and come see a show!
Cathy Rohrer is a mom, teacher and fan of dance and theater living in Squirrel Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org).