Long before he ever had kids of his own, Whit MacLaughlin recalls a friend telling him about an afternoon spent with his young nephew, when the child suddenly discovered his own shadow for the first time. “He realized that at this moment this little person became aware of this sort of doppelganger reality,” MacLaughlin says. “He was privy to a really profound moment.”
McLaughlin recalled that story when he first discovered “Me and My Shadow,” an impressive shadow theater piece created by Australia’s Patch Theatre Company which will come to the Annenberg Center this week as part of this year’s Philadelphia International Children’s Festival. At Wednesday’s opening celebration, it will be accompanied by “Shadow Town,” an interactive installation in the Annenberg’s lobby.
Looking solely at the creative team behind these pieces, you wouldn’t necessarily think to bring your kids. Artistic director MacLaughlin is the founder of New Paradise Laboratories, whose formally inventive work is typically adults-only, while composer Bhob Rainey is an experimental composer and improviser best known for sparse, challenging sonic creations.
But “Shadow Town” is the latest venture from PAPAYA (PA Performing Arts for Young Audiences), devised by MacLaughlin, W. Courtenay Wilson, and Jeremy “Boomer” Stacey to produce and present work that is truly meant for audiences of all ages. “The idea is a theater without walls idea that advances the cause of pan-generational work in this region,” MacLaughlin explains. “Stuff that adults and kids like equally, for maybe different reasons. We’re hoping that we can catch some of the fire that burns high at Pixar.”
This year marks the festival’s 30th birthday — don’t call it an anniversary — which will be celebrated with shows from the UK, Australia and the States, along with an outdoor Fun Zone with interactive crafts and performers. Shows range from electroluminescent puppetry to silent comedy to a blend of hip-hop and classical music.
“I think it’s very important to introduce kids to theater, particularly with the state of our schools,” says Dawn Frisby Byers, director of marketing and communications for the Annenberg Center. “In the digital world that we live in it’s so valuable for kids to actually see live people on stage as opposed to just sitting in front of video games on their tablets or televisions. We’re in our second generation now, so we have parents who came to the festival 30 years ago who are now bringing their own kids.”
For MacLaughlin, who also regularly directs family-oriented shows at the Arden, the festival represents the kind of programming that PAPAYA hopes to offer the city. “Kids want the real stuff, and that’s what we hope to give them, not stuff where you park them and go out and smoke a cigarette. It’s something that you want to share with them.”
Philadelphia International Children’s Festival
April 30-May 4
Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
3680 Walnut St.