Long-ago TV host Art Linkletter made a mint claiming that kids say the darnedest things. Not so, in the opinion of Michelle Pauls - kids say the smartest things. Especially kids who are acting in and writing for her B. Someday Productions theater projects.
And Pauls talks smartly back to those same young people, just as she would to any of the adult actors in her troupe at the diminutive Walking Fish Theatre on Frankford Avenue in Kensington.
"We don't speak down to children," Pauls said recently, as she readied the screwball A Fractured Christmas Carol for its opening night. Cast members range from 11-year-old Emma Dietel-O'Neill, who plays Scrooge, and Michael Trainor, 13, who's Curly from the Three Stooges (you read that right) to local pros of legal drinking age. Together, they take Dickens' mournful yet hopeful holiday tale and turn it on its ear.
"I saw in Emma and Michael something that said they were ready to take the next step and bring what they had been learning onto the stage - to become cocreators, to learn what it takes to be a stage artist," says Pauls.
Part of the mission of B. Someday and Walking Fish, which Pauls operates with husband/collaborator Stan Heleva, is to bring together artists and the community. Through workshops, classes and kid-oriented theater events - from interactive, book-based performances for the very young, to staging Fractured Fairytales for the 2009 Philly Fringe - B. Someday sends the message that theater is a living thing and that everyone should be a part of its creation, especially young people.
Creativity is a big deal for Pauls. "Even though we're offering 'family-friendly fare,' we're creating serious art," she says - and serious audiences. "I want all of the children who come to one of our shows to someday, when they are adults, realize how vital the arts are for our human development, and to continue to support the arts in any way they can."
It's not just through working on productions like A Fractured Christmas Carol that kids have benefited. B. Someday's Of Mythic Proportions!, a five-year-old storytelling performance program for teens in Kensington schools, won the 2010 Barrymore Award for Educational Excellence and Community Service.
The program sends teaching artists into one classroom all semester to help students take stories from their lives and transform them into a piece of live theater, which they then perform for other students.
"We tour at least one elementary school in the neighborhood and have at least one public performance at Walking Fish. Afterwards, we have a facilitated discussion around the issues and themes that come up," Pauls says.
The program is currently working with Mariana Bracetti Academy charter school for a third year; previously, Pauls ran the workshops at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School.
"If we can get the young people and their families in the theater," she says, "we hope to have their parents come back later for more adult fare."
Oh yeah, adult fare.
That's how B. Someday and Walking Fish got started, with provocative original productions. Heleva and Pauls started working together in 1997 during the Philly Fringe festival, writing and directing each others' plays (Cappuccino & Regret and Robert De Niro Knows). After that, Heleva's already-established B. Someday, previously concerned with performance poetry, moved in the direction of theater. Now audiences come to "the Fish" for plays, improv, sketch comedy, and burlesque as well as family shows.
"I'm first and foremost an actor, then a director, and the director of our educational outreach with Stan the Resident Playwright, a director on our mainstage work, and principal lighting designer," Pauls says, laughing at the level of multitasking, which bumped up a notch when daughter Astrid was born in 2003.
That's when Pauls and Heleva bought the then-crumbling building at 2509 Frankford Ave. from the New Kensington Community Development Corp. as part of a mixed-use pilot program for artists. Now the couple and their daughter live upstairs and Walking Fish Theatre occupies the first floor, along the burgeoning Frankford Avenue arts corridor.
"Michelle has a great way about her with the kids, so that a sense of fun comes out in the production," says actor Michael Tomasetti, one of the adult members of the Fractured Christmas Carol cast. "The children are very personable - they put themselves out there and just 'are.' I wish I had more of that in me when I was their age."
The children seem preternaturally comfortable on stage.
"Michelle knew my acting from the classes that I took at Walking Fish and asked me to play Scrooge," says Pennsport resident Emma Dietel-O'Neill. "I guess she wanted someone who could do justice to that role."
The Masterman sixth grader never really auditioned for Pauls but was already a veteran thespian, having performed in a fifth-grade play at Frankford Friends School.
For her, the most enjoyable part of the role is becoming someone else: "I can express myself in ways that I usually don't. For instance, I get to yell at people, as long as it is in the script. I don't usually yell at anyone."
Michael Trainor, of Port Richmond, has taken acting classes at the Walking Fish and says, "That's what makes me feel comfortable about performing" there. He's also taken classes at the Walnut Street Theatre and Portside Arts Center, but feels closest to his Fish colleagues and the cast of A Fractured Christmas Carol: "I do, because we all work just as hard and we all treat each other with respect."
That so much of what goes on at Walking Fish is devoted to children may be influenced by the fact that young Astrid Pauls Heleva and her parents' theater are growing up together, in a neighborhood with an energetic but still skimpy arts presence. ("Do you know there is no art instruction at our neighborhood public school, Hackett?" Michelle Pauls notes.)
So, while Pauls and Heleva still are adult theater artists with adult theater goals and projects, they've adjusted.
"I'm not sure if the statement 'devoting a good part of your professional life to kids' is 100 percent accurate, but we do offer more programming for children and families than we used to," Pauls says.
"Part of that has to do with where we have found ourselves. Fishtown and Kensington are full of families - young, newly relocated families, established neighborhood families - and these young folks are the next generation of theatergoers and arts patrons.