'Martha Speaks' comes to life on Pittsburgh stages

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Every dog has its day. Martha, the talking dog from children's literature, has lined up a few days here in Pittsburgh.

It's courtesy of the Pittsburgh International Children's Theater which has brought "Martha Speaks" to town with performances tonight and through the weekend.

"Martha Speaks," produced by Theatreworks USA in New York, is a stage production based on the kids' books and the PBS cartoon series. It's the story of a little girl's dog who happens to eat a bowl of alphabet soup and suddenly can talk. Naturally, having a talking dog leads to all sorts of fun adventures.

The show is touring the country and tonight will be at Linton Middle School in Penn Hills.

"This is the 43rd season for the Children's Theater, which was started in Mt. Lebanon as an effort to bring culture and theater into the neighborhood," said executive director Pam Lieberman. "It happened very organically in the beginning and has just grown. In addition to the Byham Theater, we're in five suburban locations. We are there to bring theater into the neighborhoods, closer to home for the families.

"It helps to make the theater more accessible, and we reach more people every year. We reach over 25,000 people a season with the family series programming."

Theatreworks has the same goal.

"Theatreworks' mission is to bring theater to young audiences," said actor Joel Sparks, one of the five actors in the production. "We go into schools and playhouses and high schools and bring a bunch of elementary-age children to the show. For a lot of the kids, it's the first time they're seeing a show of any kind. 'Martha Speaks' is a great one to start with because it is a book series and a TV series, so the kids know the stories and they are so excited to see their books come to life on the stage. It's really fun to see their eyes just open up."

Mr. Sparks, 22, from Washington, D.C., studied theater at the University of Michigan. He plays two roles -- the father and a guest at the hotel the family visits.

"I have different costumes that I change very quickly, and I have a different voice, and the kids' imaginations do the rest," he said. "I think that it works beautifully with just the five actors. It's simple. It's a very intimate show. And the power of a child's imagination is just incredible. I doubt they even associate the different characters being the same actor."

There are some differences between playing for a theater full of children and a show for grown-ups.

"You can feel the energy," Mr. Sparks said. "The show starts off with the kids just screaming and laughing and they're so excited to be there. And about halfway through the show, they are absolutely silent and mesmerized. It's like we put them in a little trance. And by the end, they are laughing and cheering for the show."

There's also the comfort of knowing that it's not Shakespeare on Broadway. If an actor flubs a line, it isn't a big deal.

"The kids are definitely forgiving of problems that happen on the stage," Mr. Sparks said, "but the care that goes into each production is the same that you would see going into any adult production.

"I think that kids can sense falseness on stage very quickly. We are trained to not talk down to the kids, but to speak to them as individuals. There is heightened awareness that it is a children's show, but there is a sense of realism. The show has a huge heart, a great heart that the kids can identify with.

"I remember when I was in elementary school, a theater troupe came to our school and it was the highlight of the year. Now we get to give that back to the kids, so I don't think any of us would ever take a step back and give 50 percent because they're just kids. The attention to detail is just as important with a children's audience as it is with an adult audience."

And it isn't limited to the stage. Today, for example, the cast visited day-care centers with some 4- and 5-year-olds. They also stay in character when they meet and greet the children before or after a show.

"I actually got to know the joys of performing for children when I worked for a puppet company in Maryland before I went to college," Mr. Sparks said. "But seeing the cast reaction to a child's laughter is so heart-warming. No matter what mood anyone is in at the start of the show, at the end of the show I guarantee we're in a good mood."

Tonight's performance at Linton Middle School, 250 Aster St. in Penn Hills, begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $11.

If you can't make it tonight, there are other shows scheduled for Thursday at Marshall Middle School in Wexford; Friday at Hopewell High School; Saturday at Mt. Lebanon High School; and Sunday at Seneca Valley Senior High School in Butler. For details on showtimes, go to www.trustarts.org/kids.

"People are really enjoying the show," Ms. Lieberman said. "We have lots of happy families leaving the theater."

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If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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