- October 30, 2015
It’s Fourth of July weekend, and all the Sarasota bigwigs are schmoozing at an exclusive celebratory soiree. Selena Gomez, the guest of honor, is set to arrive shortly, and everyone is making sure the party is perfect.
Without warning, party guests begin to float off the ground, grabbing hold of anything in sight to keep from drifting away. There’s been a gravity attack — the latest in a series of physics warfare by a notorious villain.
One guest springs to action, using his tentacles to save the levitating bystanders as he reveals his true identity — Octopus Man.
In reality, Octopus Man is Patrick Jackson, education artistic associate at Florida Studio Theatre. He, along with director Will Luera and three other cast members, are onstage at the Bowne’s Lab Theater, rehearsing for “Zap! Bang! Pow!” which runs June 30 through July 28.
The show, which is the first of its type, combines children’s theater with improv comedy to create a kid-friendly, superhero-themed interactive summer show to attract families to the theater.
It was the brainchild of Caroline Kaiser, director of children’s theater.
“In the summer, it can be easy for kids to spend more time indoors,” she says. “They might be more in the digital realm, watching movies or using devices. I wanted to keep our arts integration going all summer long, and provide a way for kids to have fun while learning.”
She and Luera came up with the concept of a superhero-based improv show. At the top of each performance, the cast takes children’s suggestions for plotlines and characters and uses them to craft the story onstage in real time.
Like hiding vegetables for picky eaters, the children are having fun and engaging in a topic they’re passionate about — and also learning valuable skills and life lessons without even realizing it.
Each show is unique, but there’s an overarching structure to the longform improv. The show is broken up into acts, or chapters, like a comic book, and Jackson, who serves as narrator, stops along the way to ask for suggestions. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book come to life.
“The kids in the audience learn the basics of story structure and storytelling,” says Kaiser. “They also learn empathy by imagining themselves as the characters. Our cast is intentionally diverse, so each child can see himself onstage, and children get to interact with adults and have their ideas validated.”
“There’s not a lot of summer theater for families,” says Jackson. “This allows kids to be part of the show. The superhero themes are perfect as a learning tool. Kids get to see the main character persevere and overcome whatever they might be struggling with.”
Kaiser says she hopes the interactive learning experience will be an introduction to theater that will inspire them to continue coming for years.
“When I see them cheering the hero and booing the villain,” she says, “I know we’ve done our job.”