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The Mudlark Theater Company is more than just a lark for the two Evanston natives in charge and the young actors they inspire.
Children’s theater is serious business for Andrew Biliter, artistic director, and Michael Miro, managing director, of Mudlark. Nurtured in their youth by Evanston arts and theater programs, both say they were eager to return to their roots after college and post-graduate adventures. “I wanted to make a difference closer to home, where my values and world view came from,” says Mr. Biliter. He joined Mudlark in the fall of 2009 after three years in Russia, where he helped edit an arts magazine. Mr. Miro came in the spring of 2010, following stints in Hollywood and graduate school.
Amy Eaton, now a Mudlark artistic associate, founded the company in 2005, naming it for the mudlarks of Victorian London, says Mr. Biliter. “These street urchins scavenged around the muck at low tide in search of valuable things to sell,” he says. “She saw this as an apt metaphor for what we do. In theater, you can’t succeed unless you ‘get messy’ by stepping out of your comfort zone and taking risks.” He adds, “I think the image of a bunch of kids mucking around looking for shiny things represents us quite well.”
Ms. Eaton believed young people could produce thought-provoking, insightful and humorous theater. She often staged “obscure” works, aiming to “surprise people,” Mr. Biliter says. He and Mr. Miro are hunting for treasure closer to home, looking for “new or surprising things in classic children’s plays and novels,” then adapting them for their troupe, says Mr. Biliter.
Mudlark tries to “mix professional theater experiences with child actors,” say the directors. “We want them to know what it’s like to get an audience and hold them.” These young men reject as “patently untrue” the conventional wisdom that a children’s play must not last more than 40 minutes because “the audience can’t stand more.” On the contrary, say Mr. Miro and Mr. Biliter: “Audiences are surprised at how quickly and fully they are drawn in[to]” a children’s production.
Surprise, Mr. Biliter smiles, is “one of the benefits of low expectations.”
Children’s theater continually offers “new possibilities to explore,” says Mr. Miro. It challenges those involved to “find out how far kids can go,” says Mr. Biliter. In the interest of pushing the boundaries, the directors do not shy away from great literature. Mudlark has staged a Shakespeare play outdoors in Ridgeville Park each summer of their tenure. Last summer, it was “Twelfth Night.” For the plays, Mr. Miro created a small stage in a space that allowed the audience to sit “right up next to the stage,” he says.
Doing Shakespeare helps young actors “learn they can handle” difficult material, say the directors. For the grown-ups, they say, “the best part was defying the expectations about what children can do.”
Each year they say they find the kids can do more. This fall the company is taking on a new challenge. They call it “making a ‘Mudpie’” – “shap[ing] and mold[ing a show] from original pieces written by kids in the community” and then performing it.
Mudlark’s call for submissions written entirely by kids – without adult editing or corrections – netted nearly 60 original stories and poems from youth ages 7 to 15. Searching for “something that sparkles,” Mr. Miro and Mr. Biliter selected 20 or 25 bits for the show titled “Mudpie.” Among them are a few Mr. Biliter says feel “like a ride on a rocket ship…really zany pieces [that are] the products of imagination unbridled.” There are also “short, sweet pieces from younger writers that capture something about that age,” and serious entries from older writers, says Mr. Miro.
Some of the finished pieces are already in rehearsal, but the directors are still looking to achieve the right balance in the show while adapting the stories in a way that makes “[the kids’] stuff shine.” The writers “feel like celebrities,” the directors say, “and we want them to.” When the play opens on Oct. 28 for a two-weekend run at Music on Madison, the writers will have front-row seats “to see their stories come to life on stage,” says Mr. Miro.
Mr. Biliter and Mr. Miro have had years to refine their act. They collaborated at Ridgeville Park District over five high school and college summers, teaching classes and writing and directing plays together. Their work with Mudlark consists of “overlapping spheres,” they say.
Mr. Biliter directs individual plays and shapes the artistic identity of the company. He selects the plays, always wondering, “How are the kids going to bring this to life, bring out the truth?” Directing “Mudpie” has Mr. Miro carrying around a spreadsheet to keep track of personnel and rehearsals. As the company’s managing director, he also administers Mudlark’s expanding after-school programming at eight area schools.
The acting company is growing as well. While 40 kids auditioned for last year’s “Peter Pan,” 100 tried out for “Mudpie” and this season’s subsequent productions. But the $250 participation fee (scholarships are available) and ticket sales cover just two-thirds of production costs. Each director has another job outside the theater: Mr. Miro is program director at Ridgeville Park District, and Mr. Biliter has taken his editing skills to a graphic design firm.
Fundraising is crucial to sustaining Mudlark. Thus, “Larktoberfest” will be on tap at the North Shore Hotel on Oct. 15. A $45 ticket will buy unlimited drinks, games, dancing — even a glimpse of a king and queen. Profits will support what the directors point out is a valuable asset in a community where increasing budget shortfalls may threaten arts programming in the schools.
Mudlark productions, which help shy kids gain confidence and validate budding writers’ creativity, are children’s plays, not mere child’s play.