Pamela Komar’s 11-year-old son is one lucky kid. His mom is constantly traveling to check out children’s theater across the country and around the globe – and he often gets to tag along.
“He is so happy with what his mom does,” says Komar, executive director of the Children’s Theater Series and Festival, as well as director of theater, music and youth programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
“I am still very much a kid at heart,” she says with a laugh. ” It definitely inspires me.”
The lineup for the upcoming 31st annual EQT Children’s Theater Festival — scheduled for May 18-21 — brings international theater performances to stages throughout the Cultural District. Programming includes a wide-range of free activities and events over the four days. Part of the goal is to entertain all ages – from babies to parents and grandparents.
“Good children’s theater is for the adults in the audience, too,” Kumar says. “That is our goal. We don’t want people to just bring their children. We want them to be entertained as well.”
The ongoing process of building the festival schedule seems daunting — she is currently working on the 2018 and 2019 festival artists — but Komar, in her 13th year at the job, is up to the task.
“It’s fun to put together,” she says. “It’s kind of like a puzzle in my mind, trying to hit all those objectives.”
She suggests buying tickets for one or two performances, then plugging in other activities and pop-up performances around those shows. Some shows are likely to sell out. To avoid disappointment, buy tickets in advance. You can check out the free events on the Trust website to plan ahead or explore as you go.
Remember, the festival goes on rain or shine, so bring rain jackets or sun hats, as weather dictates.
Free activities will be scattered throughout the Cultural District – indoors and outdoors – with 35 to 40 hands-on craft stations, pop-up performances, movie screenings and the ever-popular Frog Stop Scavenger Hunt.
Catch the Balloonatic Fringe daily show, Balloon Time is Fun Time, for a fast-paced 30 minutes of zaniness. See how much fun a juggler who cannot juggle can be with O’Ryan the O’Mazing’s Fantabulous Juggling Show. Or be dazzled by the amazing magic of David Lawrence.
We’ll be there too! Visit the Kidsburgh station where we’ll have crafts and activities from our partners like Intermediate Unit 1, who will be bringing constructible robots created on a laser cutter, or Science Tots, with playful S.T.E.M. projects.
Here are a few more fun freebies to pique your interest.
Toonseum Cartooning Workshop
Drop-in cartooning workshops will be led by the Toonseum’s drawing instructors at the August Wilson Center. Kids will learn how to create silly cartoon characters using the secret tricks cartoonists use.
“Depending on the skill level and experience of the kids, we’ll be working with them to do some general cartooning and some more advanced things,” says John Kelly, executive director of the Toonseum.
Those with ticket stubs from a performance will receive free admission to the Toonseum itself.
Steel City LUG (LEGO User Group) will bring up to 300,000 LEGOS to their big table at the Children’s Festival for the fifth year.
“We’ve just got a shipment of new LEGO parts in,” says Josh Hall. “Kids will build cars with the axels we provide, and they’ll race them down the derby track.”
AFOL (Adult Fans Of LEGOS) members will be on hand to offer support, but it’s rarely needed.
“Usually kids have their own idea of what kind of car they’re going to build or what kind of truck – or sometimes it’s spaceships,” Hall says. “So, we don’t interfere with their decisions too much. We let them be creative.”
CITIPARKS Roving Arts Cart and Alphabet Trails and Tales
CITIPARKS returns with storytelling and related crafts. This year’s book is “Dragons Love Tacos” by Adam Rubin.
“We will bring a hand-painted, life-size story set of ‘Dragons love Tacos’ – the key elements that make it really fun,” says Cindy Wiegel, a coordinator with CITIPARKS.
Staff and volunteers will read the book, and kids will make a related craft at the Roving Art Cart.
“People love it,” Wiegel says. “We bring great projects with wonderful materials. But kids get to be the artist and to make it their own.”
Harris Theater will screen a continuous playing collection of 12 animated and short films from the Best of New York International Children’s Film Festival. Drop in on the entertaining little movies as time permits. Stay for one or watch the whole reel. It’s a great spot to sit down and take a break from the outdoor excitement.
Tickets are $9 each for all ages, with a discount for the purchase of additional shows. The more shows you see, the cheaper the tickets.
For ages: 0-2
Is it ever too early to introduce your child to the delights of theater? Apparently not.
“A bit of a trend in the theater industry at the moment is offering shows for babies,” Komar says.
The U.S.-premiere of “Pulse” – held in the Cabaret at Theater Square — comes from the Mexico-based Teatro al Vacio, in its third year working with the Cultural Trust.
“The artists have worked with child development specialists to figure out what babies can react to and engage with,” Komar says.
“Pulse” uses soft textures and games to engage babies and toddlers in an environment that will stimulate their creativity.
“It’s just fascinating to watch a baby learning and responding,” Komar says. “Almost every family will walk out of the theater saying, ‘I’ve never seen him do that before,’ or ‘I’ve never seen him react that way.’ It’s just an amazing beginning to theater.”
‘We Built This City’
For ages: All ages
Did the title trigger a song in your head? That’s just the spirit that’s intended by this crazy-fun interactive project by Australia’s Polyglot, whose motto is: “Theater is child’s play.” The outdoor installment will be partially tented at Seventh Street and Penn Avenue.
“It’s kind of a fantasy of cardboard,” Komar says.
Kids can build their dream cities from thousands of cardboard boxes, guided by “construction worker” actors while a DJ keeps a high-energy soundtrack pulsing in the background.
Consider the excitement of playing in a cardboard appliance box after a home delivery, and multiply that exponentially.
“It will be interesting to see what the kids and families create, especially within the context of the city and the Cultural District,” Komar says.
‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters’
For ages: 5-11
Full of music, rhythmic drumming, and songs, this Zimbabwe-based Cinderella story by Dallas Children’s Theater will be held at the August Wilson Center. The piece is based on the John Steptoe Caldecott Honor Award-winning book which is part of the curriculum of many Pittsburgh-area schools so kids are familiar with it.
“It’s a beautiful production,” Komar says. “The festival is a great opportunity to have a larger scale African-American production onstage, especially at the August Wilson Center. I’m really excited about that show. It’s a great fit.”
‘The Way Back Home’
For ages: 3-6
Small-scale puppetry takes the spotlight in this production by the Danish Teater Refleksion and the Irish Branar Theater. The inventive piece is based on the Oliver Jeffers book.
“He’s a favorite author/illustrator of mine,” Komar says. “The puppets are really true to the original illustrations in the book.”
The story is about a little boy who has a great imagination. When he finds an airplane in his room, he flies to outer space and crash-lands on the moon where he meets a cute little alien.
As a small-scale work, the Trust Arts Education Center setting is intimate, with no more than 100 in the audience, allowing kids to get up close to the action.
‘Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!’
“It’s a musical theater romp,” Komar says of the production by the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences on Tour taking place in the Byham Theater. “It’s just good silly fun, but it’s also a great musical theater piece of great quality.”
The vaudevillian-style show is based on the “Elephant and Piggie” book series by Mo Willems. The books themselves are rather simple, with just a few words on each page, but the Kennedy Center has combined a number of stories into this 60-minute production.
“It will be one of the hot tickets,” Komar says.
Ages: 7 and older
‘This is incredible marionette theater,” Komar says. “Each of the puppets has maybe 30 or so strings on it. The puppets are just so much more life-like. And the dexterity the artist uses to animate the puppets is just incredible.”
There’s no storyline here. Instead, Cashore Marionettes company presents a series of vignettes from everyday life, simple things that are often overlooked. As another small-scale performance, it will be in the Trust Arts Education Center.
“It’s just beautiful,” Komar says. “It was created for children, but if there are any adults who come without a child, this is definitely for them.”
Hungry families can visit food trucks on Seventh Avenue, between Penn and Liberty, where outdoor seating will be available. “We try to get a few food trucks each day that are more kid-friendly,” Komar says.
Many Cultural District restaurants are planning special family-forward menus for the occasion.
The food truck schedule and restaurant menus will be available closer to the weekend.
You can reserve parking in advance in the Theater Square Garage with a pre-paid parking voucher. Call 412-456-6666 or visit the Theater Square Box Office. The parking vouchers are available in a limited number.
Or visit ParkPGH, the Trust’s real-time parking website, which shows exactly where spaces are open within the 5,000 parking spots in the Cultural District, was well as those a short walk away.