By Sherida Mock

In 2000, Judy Matetzschk-Campbell had received a Ph.D. in theatre from UT Austin and wanted to direct plays for young audiences. But she found a lack of good material. Too much of the work at the time centered on adaptations of fairy tales and children’s books.

“I felt the need to create things that were realistic, that spoke to the challenges children have now,” she says. So she founded the Pollyanna Theatre Company to serve young audiences and provide them with educational experiences through original art.

AF: Tell us about your background.

Judy: I’ve always been a Central Texan. I was born in Elgin. I grew up during that period when every day started with Froot Loops and Captain Kangaroo, then I Love Lucy. From the time I was about 3 years old, I thought, “What Lucy is doing right now—making people laugh and giving joy—I want to be part of that.”
When I look at our plays now, there’s this interesting mix of Captain Kangaroo, Froot Loops and I Love Lucy. This explains a lot, doesn’t it?
AF: What defines theatre for young people?

Judy: My colleague Sandy Asher says that our plays are shorter because so are our audience members and their attention span. They have a child or a child-like protagonist that every child can identify with, and they always offer hope. We need to put that main character in a place where things are going to be okay—even if they’re hard, even if there’s a loss, even if things are never going to be the way they were before the story started.

AF: What can theatre do for children?

Judy: Theatre as a teaching tool is an amazing force. At-risk children are the core of our mission. They come in with very little socialization, way behind their more affluent peers in verbal skills and vocabulary. They’ve had almost no number or pattern recognition. It’s very difficult for a standard pre-K program to get them academically ready.

We send our teaching artists in to the classrooms, and they do theme-based things to get them ready to see the play. And then we all see the play together. These plays are structured in tiny little bites. There’s a scene, then there’s a chance to get up and wiggle. Then they’re ready to focus on the next part of the story.

Our partner, Bookspring, goes back to the classroom and does reading motivation skills, all linked thematically to the play they just saw. The forever book they get to take home supports what they saw. It’s this integrated approach to pre-literacy, motivation to read, learning how the arts work and having their first cultural experience.

AF: Does it take a special actor to do this work?

Judy: Definitely. It’s this amazing ability to stay focused on what needs to happen next in the story while not pushing the children beyond where they are at that moment. There’s this sort of dance that happens, this sort of unspoken exchange.

AF: How many children are you reaching?

Judy: Over the span of a year, between our main stage shows and our theatre-for-the-very-young, plus the schools we go into and our regional touring, it’s about 20,000 children.

AF: Which has been your favorite Pollyanna production?

Judy: I love the plays that put us all in the audience together, whether you’re an adult or young person. The play we’re going to remount in the spring—Liberty! Equality! and Fireworks!—is all about the civil rights movement. It brings those characters to life, like the young men sitting at the Woolworth’s counter during the sit-in. It’s really powerful.

AF: Where do your plays take place?

Judy: The theatre-for-the-very-young shows are for 2 to 5 year olds. These happen in the AT&T Education Room at the Long Center. It is very hands-on, very participatory. Our main stage shows are primarily for kindergarten through 5th grade. Those happen at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center. We partnered with the LBJ Library’s education department, and we now do the Liberty! Equality! and Fireworks! show in their auditorium.

AF: Have there been any surprises in growing the company?

Judy: Growth has definitely been a struggle. Being at the Long Center is a blessing, but we’re only there when we’re in production. Pollyanna really is this office, a rented studio space where we do our rehearsals and a really stuffed storage unit.

People say they want the arts in their community, and I think a lot of people really do, but it’s hard to find people willing to help pay for it. There have been ups and downs in the economy. We’ve gone through times when people were very generous, and then we’ve gone through times when the need is outrageous among the families that we serve, and nobody had anything to give.

We need people who go out and talk about our mission and bring additional resources so we can grow our staff and infrastructure. It would be awesome to know there was a way for this to sustain itself beyond the passion of the individuals in it right now.

We have a lot to offer in terms of educational value and creative value. The arts have a moral imperative to offer children what we know works.

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