At a Carousel Theatre for Young People performance, you'll often see the adults in the audience looking not at the stage, but sideways at their kids. This is not a critique on the quality of the productions; in fact, it's a testament to it. With plays aimed at children as young as three, Carousel, in many cases, is a child's first exposure to theatre, to actors in the flesh, to a live production of any sort. Watching your child take it in wide-eyed, slack-jawed, miraculously sitting still for an entire hour is an experience as magical as anything you'll see on the stage.
The performances, in an intimate 200-seat theatre, are high quality and never patronizing. Unlike the big, based-on-a-TV-show extravaganzas that blow through town packing hundreds of kids into giant venues, there is nobody hawking outrageously priced merchandise in the lobby at intermission. (Although, with many of the productions based on literary works, you might find books for sale.) The plays are light-hearted and full of laughs, but are taken very seriously by the artists.
"It's a responsibility to do it well," says artistic and managing director Carole Higgins. "We really do think about doing it well."
Carousel was founded in 1974 by Elizabeth Ball. Then working at the Arts Club, she credits Arts Club artistic managing director Bill Millerd with the idea.
"He took me into the theatre one day and it was empty and he said … 'Why don't you fill the theatre with kids? I bet you can do it.' Right away, that second, I knew exactly that I wanted Carousel to be, which was to be a professional theatre performing for young people so that children were going to see the very best," says Ms. Ball, who is now a Vancouver city councillor. "It was going to be the best experience possible, which was going to make them fall in love with theatre and make them stay with it for life."
The company began its life at the Arts Club's Seymour Street venue, later at Presentation House in North Vancouver, and ultimately helped build the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island, which remains its home.
In 2001, Ms. Ball retired and Ms. Higgins took over. Through the next few years, the company expanded its mainstage program and rebranded as Carousel Theatre for Young People, focusing solely on children and youth.
Now in its 37th season with about 150 productions under its belt, Carousel Theatre, it's safe to say, has introduced theatre to hundreds of thousands of young people.
"Every day, and I'm not exaggerating, every day somebody comes up to me and says: 'You're the person who started Carousel Theatre,' " says Ms. Ball. " 'I just want you to know what it did for me.' "
Beyond its mainstage season, Carousel operates a summer Teen Shakespeare program (where Ms. Higgins herself got her start in theatre), and a year-round theatre school for kids aged three to 17. The company's Elementary School Touring Program is on hold, the result of a serious accident involving the van carrying the actors while touring the show The Big League in 2007.
A typical mainstage season consists of four or five productions – with school group matinees through the week and public performances on weekends. This season opened a couple of weeks ago with The Wizard of Oz, which Ms. Higgins directs.
At a recent matinee, children – many in costume (one adult's Tin Man interpretation involved a colander fixed atop his head) – sat quietly, for the most part, through a two-hour performance (including intermission). Parents indulged in the nostalgia, and laughed out loud at the odd aimed-at-the-grownups joke, such as the Scarecrow's: "Some people without brains do an awful lot of talkin'."
Afterwards, some of the children, and parents, could be heard singing We're Off to See the Wizard and having lively discussions about their favourite parts. Clearly, they were paying rapt attention.
They don't always. "You get a very pure reaction from the audience. You know how they're doing. You know if they're loving it," says Ms. Higgins, sitting in Carousel's green room. "We know when the kids are getting fidgety. We know when a scene is too long. They let us know all of those things. Whereas I think adults will tend to be much more polite. That poses wonderful challenges to us. It keeps us on our toes."
With a full-time staff of just four people (general manager Aliyah Amarshi frequently raced out of the interview to answer the phone at reception), Carousel has a yearly budget of just under $1-million, relying heavily on ticket sales for revenue, although it receives funding from each level of government. Along with playfulness and artistic excellence, accessibility is a key pillar for the company, and to that end, it offers free tickets to some inner-city schools and brings in the VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society for a performance for blind and low-vision children.
For Carousel's staff – and artists, many of whom take a pay cut to work on these shows – this is a calling. "I wouldn't want to do any other kind of theatre," Ms. Higgins says. "They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, we like to think we're part of that village."