There's a line director Whit MacLaughlin uses when one of his family shows at the Arden Theatre edges into perilous territory: "Oooh, I'm getting that children's-theater feeling."

Everyone around him knows what he's referring to - theater that's didactic, condescending, two-dimensional - but it's an increasingly inaccurate description, and MacLaughlin's very presence as director of the Arden's

James and the Giant Peach

is the proof.

While there are lots of Broadway musicals and variations on

A Christmas Carol

humbugging away on area stages, there also are plenty of shows for kids that have little to do with December, and even less to do with the stereotypically wooden offerings MacLaughlin disdains.

In fact, much of the new breed of homegrown family theater features the talents of Fringe Festival/Live Arts regulars alongside Barrymore Awards favorites doing what they do best: pushing boundaries and defying expectations.

The playbills for this season's family shows read like a Who's Who of cutting-edge Philadelphia drama.

In MacLaughlin's other gig as artistic director of New Paradise Laboratories, he creates sensual, abstracted movement-theater pieces.

Landis Smith, artistic director of Enchantment Theatre, whose

Snow Queen

is currently at the Prince Music Theater, has partnered with symphony orchestras across the nation for some of his company's productions.

Pete Pryor, director of People's Light & Theatre's

Cinderella

holiday panto, doubles as an artistic director of the comic theater company 1812 Productions, and is also currently acting in the Prince's

It's a Wonderful Life

.

Jorge Cousineau is a one-man Philly multimedia machine, working on videos and animation for both

James

and

Cinderella

, and still somehow managing to provide video for a recent gig at Northern Liberties hotspot Johnny Brenda's with Pig Iron Theatre Company. And these are just a few of the boldfaced offstage names.

Arden artistic director Terry Nolen believes this evolution has occurred organically. He says, "I was just realizing how many people who do our work for kids now have kids. At any given rehearsal, there are kids somewhere. We bring them to watch rehearsals, as test audiences."

It's a side benefit that these theater professionals get to become wizards in their children's eyes, wowing them with a fantastic adventure through their favorite story. For Nolen, whose son has a communication disorder, seeing his child connect with a theatrical experience is even more magical. "He talks very specifically about the moment in last year's

Sleeping Beauty

that stayed with him. It was when Sleeping Beauty touches the needle and can't speak. . . . It was very powerful."

There also are larger forces at work. Almost every director interviewed used the phrase "the bar has been raised," and Pryor sees this elevation as a natural extension of the city's increasingly high theater profile. Philadelphia, he says, "is just a great theater town, and I think that's going to show in all the forms."

Nolen agrees. "Each time we start a [family] show, we try to figure out how we can top what we've done before. And that's also the thing that keeps great artists wanting to do this kind of work, because otherwise. . . . " He trails off, no doubt imagining that dreaded "children's-theater feeling."

Though some of the companies producing innovative work for children have always given it the same attention and resources as the rest of their seasons, others came to it by accident and are still undecided about their commitment.

In addition to its annual panto - a raucous, slapstick British holiday tradition - People's Light & Theatre in recent years has ramped up its output, rounding out its Family Discovery Series with a project that adapts Newbery Medal-winning books to the stage, as well as one regular family-friendly mainstage show.

Artistic director Abigail Adams takes the pantos so seriously that she sent playwright and actor Mark Lazar, who specializes in each show's "Dame" role - a big, burly man in drag - to England to research the form. She believes that maintaining a family base is crucial to People's Light's survival.

"If they start at age 5 or 6 and come to the panto, then they come along for the family series, and by the time they get to seventh or eighth grade, they're really ready to move into the regular subscription series," she says. "The other facet is that there's a whole generation of parents who never grew up going to the theater, whose first experience is taking their children, and they become adult subscribers. So it works both ways."

Lantern Theater Company's Charles McMahon isn't quite sold. Lantern's previous family-friendly productions,

Through the Looking Glass

, and

The Foocy

, brought in kids by accident.

Of

Looking Glass

, McMahon says, "After we put the whole show together, we realized this was something kids were going to enjoy as much as adults. It sounds kind of dumb, but it literally hadn't occurred to us. So after that we thought, 'Well, there's an opportunity lost.' "

The Foocy

, again marketed to adults, also attracted families.

This year, Lantern is prepared. Its current offering, an adaptation of Gogol's comedy

The Government Inspector

, is billed for ages "8 to 80," and features matinees and special pricing. McMahon says he's "not at the point of making a full-on commitment to this every season," but adds, "We're definitely looking down the road to see what plays of this type we can develop."

These companies also engage young audiences by giving them the opportunity to participate as well as observe. Both the Arden and People's Light offer talkbacks with the cast, and Nolen insists that his actors greet children after every show, shaking hands, answering questions and signing posters. Enchantment Theatre, whose work is always devoted to children, conducts pre-performance craft workshops.

Enchantment might find itself the natural successor to now-shuttered Mum Puppettheatre's sophisticated, dreamy, mask- and puppet-heavy family fare. After 30 years as a traveling company, Enchantment finally took up residence in offices at the Prince last month, making a commitment to maintaining a Philadelphia base.

Artistic director Landis Smith says, "We're not interested in demonstrating the story as much as playing on children's imaginations so they become partners in the storytelling." Thus, "instead of showing a tree, we may have a stick with ribbons and fabric to stimulate the idea of a tree. . . . We're interested in theater as a theatrical and not a realistic medium, not representational, but evocative."

That's high-minded stuff for a genre usually associated with low budgets and even lower standards. But MacLaughlin believes that the quality divide between adult and children's fare is almost nonexistent.

"Ultimately," he says, "plays for families or young audiences put their pants on like other plays." The difference is that these days, those pants are a much better fit.