With a Child's Heart 

In Richmond, Minds Wide Open is anything but kids' stuff.

click to enlarge Henley Street's "Lord of the Flies" is one of the productions affiliated with the Minds Wide Open collaborative.
  • Henley Street's "Lord of the Flies" is one of the productions affiliated with the Minds Wide Open collaborative.

"Kids go through a lot of emotions," says artist Max Rooney, an eighth-grader at Holman Middle School in Henrico County. "They aren't just happy all the time."

That assertion points to an undercurrent through this year's Minds Wide Open celebration, a collaborative arts festival that will encompass nearly 10,000 events across Virginia from March through June. Organized and promoted by the Virginia Commission of the Arts, the effort aims to replicate the success of the 2010 celebration, with the theme of Women in the Arts, which attracted thousands of patrons to concerts, art exhibits and stage productions.

With an eye toward appealing to an even broader audience, the commission adopted the theme of Children and the Arts. And while there will be plenty of cheerful and uplifting events appropriate for all ages, in Richmond there also will be several events that take a decidedly darker look at life before adulthood.

Theater productions such as Chamberlayne Actors Theatre's "The Children's Hour" (opening March 23) and "Lord of the Flies," produced by Henley Street Theatre Company (running through Feb. 25) show children acting selfishly or violently. In "And Then They Came for Me," staged by the Jewish Family Theatre (May 2) and Firehouse Theatre Project's "Ohio State Murders" (Feb. 16), children are affected in devastating ways by forces of prejudice and racism.

The dark tone isn't restricted to the performing arts. Rooney's art exhibit, opening at the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen on June 1, also might challenge expectations. Entitled "Melancholy Escapes," the young artist's collection of abstract acrylics and watercolors is engineered to provoke a "What the? ..." kind of response, he says. The largely self-taught teenager draws on influences from Picasso to local graffiti artists to create imagery that's "almost hallucinogenic," he says. "I like to think each piece expresses an emotion, and that emotion is not always a happy one."

The more challenging events point to the benefit of a broad, statewide celebration, says Ryan Ripperton, executive director of the School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, known as SPARC, as well as one of seven Central Virginia coordinators for the Minds Wide Open effort. "The criteria for involvement are very simple and open," he says. "This gives organizations the opportunity to be creative and represent a wider range of experience beyond the bubble gum and lollipop range."

The theme encompasses anything that pertains to children, including performances for kids, events produced by kids, or even artistic skills that are taught to kids. Participation isn't restricted to professional arts organizations; performing groups associated with churches, schools and community centers all can register to take part. The kickoff event in the Central Virginia region will be held at CenterStage in early March and will include a day of educational workshops in addition to special performances.

While that's an event open to all ages, others will require parental guidance. Richmond Triangle Players is offering "Stupid Kids" (opening March 28), a sometimes caustic look at high-school stereotypes — complete with discussions of sex, drugs and alcohol. Director Jason Campbell likens the play to the classic 1985 movie, "The Breakfast Club," but says that it looks at high school with a broader perspective. "The play breaks everything down almost sociologically," he says. "The perspective is one of an outsider looking in." Campbell brings a firsthand understanding to directing this production: He's a teacher at Appomattox Regional Governor's School. "I think things in high school are better today [than they used to be]," he says. "But people still feel like they can't be in that clique of 'perfect people.'"

A show like "Stupid Kids" or "Lord of the Flies" may show kids behaving badly, but director Billy Christopher Maupin says he thinks staging this kind of material shows respect for children as actors and artists. Maupin has just started rehearsals of "The Children's Hour," Lillian Hellman's scathing look at the damage caused by accusations of a lesbian affair at an all-girl boarding school. "Kids are greatly underestimated as actors," Maupin says. "So there aren't a lot of roles out there that give young actors fully fleshed-out characters to portray, roles that allow them to use all of the tools they are trying to develop."

Ripperton echoes Maupin in his description of children involved in SPARC's many actor-training classes. "Particularly when they get to be 12, 13 or 14 years old, students are begging to do material that pushes right up to the line of what is appropriate," he says. "This celebration enables arts organizations to delve into the full breadth of what childhood is."

The Minds Wide Open celebration in Central Virginia will hold its kickoff event at Richmond CenterStage on March 3 starting at 10 a.m. Go to artsva.org for details on the celebration as well as a complete listing of all associated Minds Wide Open events.


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