Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

World of whimsy

Adventure Theatre gets a new space and a new director

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Naomi Brookner/The Gazette
Man in the red hat: Michael Bobbitt has taken over as artistic director at Adventure Theatre.
Once upon a time, in a sleepy town nestled in a bend in the river, there was a tiny little theater. Children liked to go there and see fairy tales come to life on the little stage, but it was very small and dark — and kind of uncomfortable.

Then one day, there fell from the skies a great glittering fall of pixie dust, and it settled on the theater and — poof! — everything was new and beautiful.

Well, that’s not really true, not the pixie dust part, anyway. Adventure Theatre (AT) is new and beautiful, but that has more to do with hard work and planning than glittering pixie dust. The children’s theater company also has a brand new artistic director, and he has a vision that he says will make magical things happen for the little theater in Glen Echo Park.

‘‘We have three generations of theatergoers here,” says Michael Bobbitt, 35, the native Washingtonian actor-choreographer-director who took the reins as AT’s artistic director from Carol Leahy in July. ‘‘I don’t want to lose what people love about this place.”

That said, the group is ‘‘in transition to becoming professional. We have functioned for many years as a volunteer, community-based organization. Now I’m thinking about funds and fiscal responsibility, developing relationships with other arts organizations.

‘‘Disney showed the world you can do children’s theater in a sophisticated way,” he adds. ‘‘Our shows are curriculum-inspired and culturally diverse.

‘‘That’s why we’re here, right? To entertain and educate.”

Open space

Glen Echo Park is a fanciful place, with its yurts and stone castle tower, its carousel and trolley car, its Art Deco signage and pastel-painted outbuildings.

It looks like the setting of a children’s book, and in a sense it is, because over the years, countless stories for children have sprung to life on the stages of Adventure Theatre and its neighbor The Puppet Co.

Recently the entire place has undergone a renovation; bit by bit, the buildings of Glen Echo Park are being restored to their former glory and beyond. Swing dancers strut their stuff in a refurbished Spanish Ballroom, little ones sit crisscross applesauce in The Puppet Co.’s brand new space. And Adventure Theatre, operating across the park for more than a year, is finally back in its usual location.

‘‘It wasn’t an ideal situation,” admits set designer Brenden McDougal. ‘‘As a theater, we did everything we possibly could to make the actors comfortable. This allows the process to be that much smoother.”

The dressing rooms, the prop and costume storage, the shop where McDougal and his team create their stage-sized world — like the castle-like facade of Misselthwaite Manor for ‘‘The Secret Garden” — are just steps away.

As Wendy Nogales, a longtime Adventure Theatre actress-director-stage manager, member of the new AT company and McDougal’s wife, says, ‘‘It’s good to see that the efforts have shifted.”

Nogales means that the time and energy that was put into maintaining the makeshift performance space can now be poured into the dream of the new Adventure Theatre. And the feedback she’s getting from children, adults and other actors is positive.

‘‘Really, really positive,” she says. ‘‘The kids have been excited, the parents have been excited. I was in ‘Stuart Little,’ and with this new stage configuration, you really open up to the kids.”

Cuddle up

Nogales and McDougal weren’t born when Adventure Theatre was founded in 1951 — or even when it moved to Glen Echo in 1971. But changing a place that has been around for decades is no easy task. While the new theater is clean and bright with plenty of room for the actors and the audience, the old place had a certain charm. Bobbitt says the theater has kept some things the same, the plastic-cushioned seats have backs, but no arms.

‘‘We call it ‘the cuddle factor,’” laughs Bobbitt, a new dad who understands the appeal of cuddling up if things get scary.

Bobbitt says that parenting informs his mission here at AT.

‘‘As a dad, I see the world anew,” he says. As an artistic director, he sees the world as a place he wants to capture onstage.

‘‘It comes out of me and who I am in my life,” he explains. ‘‘An African American theater artist who travels and likes to experience different cultures.

‘‘That’s my world view, and I think that’s where children’s theater is going.”

His son is Vietnamese, and Bobbitt understands deeply the need for children to see themselves when they look up at the stage.

‘‘Ethnic diversity, social diversity, economic diversity,” he says. ‘‘Always in my career I’ve been the person who sees that as a plus, who sees that the best person gets the part, regardless of color.

‘‘Even the skill sets of our actors are diverse!”

As for his own skill sets, Bobbitt — an adjunct professor at Howard University — has been affiliated with AT for five years. Before that, he’d become a well-known member of the D.C. theater community, working in various capacities everywhere from the Kennedy Center to the Shakespeare Theatre to Woolly Mammoth to Round House Theatre. He’s an actor, a playwright, a choreographer, a director (most recently for the about-to-open ‘‘Secret Garden”), a guy who wears many hats figuratively — and a red one, actually. He talks about his dreams and his goals for AT, but one thing is most important, he says.

‘‘I want to maintain the whimsy.”

‘‘The Secret Garden” runs through Dec. 16 at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Performances begin at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 10 and 11:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 3, and Tuesday, Dec. 4; and 7 p.m. Fridays, Nov. 16, 30 and Dec. 7. Tickets are $12. Call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre.org.