Doyle Ott Takes Toddlers to the Moon and Back
by Rosa del Duca
“Teddy Bears’ Picnic” starts before you even reach the “theater,” as you follow a friendly bear strumming a ukulele through Oakland’s Fairyland, pausing to make sure no one gets lost. As you duck inside a cozy yurt, you see not one, but two friendly bears. Sister Bear is inside, stretching, balancing, trying to scratch her back. The kids settle down on round pillows on the floor, or on benches against the yurt’s walls.
Getting a toddler to sit still and quiet for more than a few minutes can be a challenge, even if you have taken your well-behaved little darling to a production designed for kids. It’s a problem that the Bay Area Children’s Theater is solving with great success with their Theater for the Very Young program. These interactive shows are designed for kids from six months to three years young.
The audience watches as Brother Bear and Sister Bear puzzle through what they will need for their picnic. A basket is lowered from the ceiling on a pulley to fanfare. Then comes the business of filling it. The kids are invited to make sandwiches out of felt fixings and slices of bread. Even my daughter, who is incredibly shy in new social settings, built a sandwich and carried it to the picnic basket in the center of the room. This first invitation to engage sets a mood for the rest of the production. Kids feel comfortable shouting out suggestions, running up to the bears, touching props, and even crawling around the room like ants when invited.
Not only are the kids thrilled, but so are the parents. A few couldn’t resist grabbing their phones to sneak a picture. A mother next to me whispered to her young son: “Isn’t this the coolest thing ever?”
After the bears pack their picnic basket they tackle the conundrum of where to go on this wonderful picnic. Each location idea comes with an enthusiastic costume change. The bears get ready for the beach—until they remember that sand and sandwiches don’t mix. Next they bundle up for the mountains—until they realize all that snow will be too cold.
Preparing for a picnic on the moon is a real hit, complete with space jumpsuits and helmets, and backed by a classical version of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” But it turns out you cannot eat through a space helmet, no matter how hard you try. So the bears end up at the park, to the great satisfaction of the little boy who suggested the park from the very start.
There is no down time in this compact production. Props are whisked in and out of the room deftly, sound effects and music play on cue with a touch of a button, and when children pose speed bumps to the action, the actors expertly maneuver to keep the show on track.
The show moves perhaps a little too fast. These kids are riveted the whole time and they are just starting to really warm up when the bears send them on their way. Luckily the price of a ticket comes with admission to Fairyland for the day, so there is lots more to explore outside the magical yurt. Otherwise, parents and kids might feel a little gypped. Instead, it’s a treasure to watch the kids as they experience this one-of-a-kind show. Afterward the kids are primed to explore Fairyland in a hands-on, open-minded, wide-eyed way.
“Teddy Bears’ Picnic” by Doyle Ott, by Bay Area Children’s Theater, at Children’s Fairyland, Lake Merritt, Oakland, through Sunday, October 29, 2017. Info: bact.org
BACT moves the show to Children’s Creativity Museum, San Francisco, in January, 2018.