If you were to look back at the last 30 years or so of the Little Rock theater scene, you’d find very few constants, given the mercurial nature of live theater. However, the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre has remained steady and steadfast: Theatergoers who happen to have age-appropriate children know what kind of colorful theatrical magic the company has generated season after season.
This is a time of transition for the Children’s Theatre. Thanks to the renovation of the Arts Center (still a couple of years away from completion), the Children’s Theatre does not have a stage to call home. In addition, longtime Artistic Director Bradley Anderson resigned in 2019. Associate Artistic Director Katie Campbell has taken over on an interim basis. Campbell’s interesting array of skills — improv, puppetry, acting, directing — make her an intriguing choice to lead the Children’s Theatre.
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You’re from North Carolina and moved to Little Rock in 2007. What prompted the move?
In 2006, I heard about the AACCT from a fellow actor I worked with in Pennsylvania who also worked at the Children’s Theatre at the time. Later that year, I came to visit Little Rock, where I saw the Tony-nominated musical “A Year with Frog and Toad.” I was so impressed with the Arts Center, the caliber of the production, and the community of artists, that I was eager for the opportunity to audition for the company the following season. Fortunately for me, in 2007 I was hired by Children’s Theatre’s Artistic Director Bradley Anderson as a company actor after attending the Unified Professional Theatre Auditions in Memphis. I moved here with the expectation that I would stay for a couple of years before moving on to the next acting gig. But I wanted to stay when I fell in love with Arkansas, the Children’s Theatre’s mission and philosophy, and the incredibly talented people that make up the vibrant arts scene in Little Rock.
When did you become interim artistic director of the Children’s Theatre?
For five years I was a company actor and teaching artist with the Children’s Theatre. Those were formative years for me as a theater artist and I had wonderful opportunities to grow as a collaborator, actor, teacher, designer, deviser, stage manager and director. Having a company of resident artists creating productions in-house, from top to bottom, taught me so much about the art of making plays. I had a keen interest in directing, which Bradley encouraged, and he gave me the opportunity to direct touring shows, a studio show and a mainstage production prior to my leaving for graduate school in the fall of 2012. After graduate school in 2014 I returned to the AACCT energized and excited to continue creating innovative work for youth and family audiences. In 2016 I became a staff member of the Arts Center as one of the associate directors of the Children’s Theatre. This team of associate directors works with the artistic director on season planning, company direction and goals. When Bradley Anderson retired in December of 2019, after serving over 40 distinguished years at the helm, I became interim artistic director. I hope to honor him and the Children’s Theatre by building upon his extraordinary legacy.
What attracted you to this pretty specific type of theater?
One of the main reasons I feel so connected to theater for young audiences is that I have great access to what I was feeling and thinking as a child. I remember having such complex feelings and emotions concerning all matters of my childhood, from the depth of friendships, to the injustices I felt in life at school, adventures on the playground, the death of family members, the joys of discovery and the intensity of crushes, to the pride of hard work and grit paying off, to the whole spectrum of human emotion one feels as they grow into a young adult. The theater was a place where I felt seen and heard as a child. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing theater teacher in middle school who allowed us to explore the multifaceted inner workings of our hearts and minds by exploring plays that addressed the complexity of the world as well as plays that allowed us to escape into a land of pure fantasy.
I faced several hardships in my youth, and the theater gave me a community of love and hope. Knowing what a life-changing and positive impact theater can have on a young person, because I lived it, has been a driving force in my career. As an adult, I have the opportunity to advocate for young people and their right to see themselves and their lives equitably represented on the stage. Oftentimes, theater for children is only framed through the lens of education or that the program will make them future artists or supporters. I believe that children are deserving of artistic experiences that speak to them, not because they will be future adults, but because of who and what they are right now as young people.
Growing up, were you a theater kid?
My mother was very active in community and dinner theater growing up, so I went to see plays all through my childhood. She also encouraged imaginative play at home, and my older brother and I often put on shows for her. One of our favorite at-home productions was “Star Wars,” where we would get inside upturned stools-turned-starfighters to reenact our favorite battle scenes. It wasn’t until middle school that I started doing theater in any formal sense. I was active in theater departments at every school I attended afterward, until eventually graduating from high school and the North Carolina School of the Arts senior year drama program.
You are the co-founder of Armadillo Rodeo, the youth improv group. Are kids natural improvisers?
Working with Armadillo Rodeo is one of the biggest joys of my career. The teens in the troupe are driven, kind, dedicated, talented and absolutely hilarious. I think young people are natural storytellers, and at the heart of good improv is a good story. I’m surprised at every rehearsal and performance at their grasp of storytelling, their ability to weave a cohesive narrative collaboratively, their wit, and the utilization of their unique voice from a teen perspective. The Rodeo is in its 13th season, and it has been so rewarding to see several of the alumni grow into colleagues.
You have serious credits as a puppeteer. Do you incorporate this skill in Children’s Theatre shows?
I do have a great love of puppetry. It is a varied, beautiful and ancient art in its own right. While I have done some puppeteering, a majority of my experience is in directing and designing puppets. Puppetry has long been a part of the Children’s Theatre’s approach to telling stories, but I do bring a lot of enthusiasm for incorporating puppetry when it arises.
One of my favorite shadow puppetry forms uses old-school overhead projectors. My thesis project in graduate school was creating a show in this form and I brought those skills to the AACCT’s production of “The Snowy Day and Other Stories,” based on the books of Ezra Jack Keats. It utilized three screens, three live actors, five overheads, six puppeteers and close to 80 puppets. Lauren Lusk, the props designer, also built two exceptional “Willie the dog” puppets for the show. “Snowy Day” remains one of my all-time favorite productions that I have directed, for the music, text, style, quality of work and commitment that everyone involved in the show brought to the production. Additionally, “The Hobbit,” which closed our season last year, used a variety of styles of puppets designed by several members of the company, including shadow mask trolls, bunraku-style Gollum, hand-puppet purse, lantern-style spider and a large-scale dragon puppet. Luckily, I am not alone in my affinity for puppetry at the Children’s Theatre, and I look forward to what projects may lie ahead for us.
You have a couple of shows on the 2020 schedule as touring shows. How is the renovation of the Arts Center affecting programming?
Children’s Theatre on Tour has been a staple of our programming for many years, and this season we have been delighted to expand that program to include an additional tour while the main stage is being renovated. Two of our tours have completed their statewide run (“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod: A Play for the Very Young” and “A Christmas Carol”), while one is currently on the road (“Arkansas Story Porch”), and another will hit the road (“Wind in the Willows”) in the spring. In addition to touring, there are opportunities for the public to see these productions at the [Hillary Rodham Clinton] Children’s Library and at our Riverdale location.