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They're engaged: Austin's Pollyanna Theatre Company figures out how to entertain kids in a pandemic

Holly Hepp-Galvan acts as the storyteller in Pollyanna Theatre Company's "The Missing Dinosaur Adventure," which she wrote.

Beginning Saturday, preschoolers will dress up as their favorite dinosaur and roar. They might even create their own Jurassic background. 

Pollyanna Theatre Company has figured out how to do live theater for children during a pandemic.

This fall, the theater presented "The Movie Set Mystery," "Edith Wilmans on Her Campaign Tour," "The Talent Show Mystery," "Mystery at the Toy Store" and "The Search for the Hidden Toys."

Its latest is "The Missing Dinosaur Adventure," designed for ages 3 to 6, which will play live on Zoom at 2 p.m. on Saturdays through February. 

The premise: Baby Dinosaur is missing, and fellow dinosaurs (that's the kids in the audience) have to help find her.

Pollyanna Artistic Director Judy Matetzschk-Campbell said when she started to wrap her head around how to do children's theater without gathering together, she wanted no part of recorded performances that kids could watch. "I couldn't put my heart on that," she said. 

Instead, playwright Holly Hepp-Galvan, who wrote "The Missing Dinosaur Adventure" among many other plays Pollyanna Theatre has performed, went back to her time on the children's birthday party circuit, when she would create a mystery and make the audience part of the performance. 

For the plays for older kids who are already reading or for classroom performances, each kid coming to the performance is given a role to play and a script in advance with the lines they will read. Sometimes siblings or parents help them if they are just learning to read; sometimes the actors who are present will help kids with their lines or fill in if a kid becomes shy or scared. 

For the preschool plays, like "The Missing Dinosaur Adventure," every kid is playing the same role. In this case, it's a dinosaur.

This might sound like chaos, but Matetzschk-Campbell says that the actors and the stage managers are able to manage it. Plus, kids, even as young as 3, have already figured out how to mute and unmute themselves on Zoom. Sometimes the stage manager or actors will have to mute the parents in the background.

During the performance, Pollyanna Theatre tries to make it as interactive and active as possible, while keeping a storyline going. The actors will tell the dinosaurs in the audience to go look for something or to fly around the room, but then will ring a bell to get everyone back to the screen for the next part of the play. Often, Matetzschk-Campbell says, the actors don't even need the bell because the young dinosaurs return on their own to hear the next part.

"I didn't know if we could keep them engaged for our 45-minute time together online, but as soon as those screens started popping on in the first performance and we saw the costumes and saw they had created backdrops and saw parents or grandparents sitting beside them, we knew we were doing the right thing,"  Matetzschk-Campbell says.

The audiences have been growing, but Pollyanna Theatre tries to keep it within 16 participants to make it more interactive and to able to see everyone on one screen. 

"It's not the same live experience of being in the same room together, but we still see the creative spark in those little faces," Matetzschk-Campbell says. And, like during many performances for young children, you hear things like kids telling parents they need to go to the bathroom, or kids talking during the performance. That's part of the magic of live theater, but unlike live theater, the mute button or turning the video off for that young dinosaur can be used.

Sometimes families have connectivity issues or, during the challenges of a pandemic, forget to log in. Matetzschk-Campbell says theater staff have to be grace-filled and will let families roll their tickets to the next performance.

When Pollyanna Theatre first began these performances, Matetzschk-Campbell would hear a common concern from parents: "I have to sit on Zoom all day long, and I can't imagine it entertaining my 6-year-old for an hour." She asked them to give Pollyanna Theatre a chance. "Then they come back to me and say, 'You're right. This is the most engaged I've seen them in six months.' That's very rewarding," she says.

"It's not your Mommy and Daddy's Zoom. It's a different way to look at telling a story, and acting, improving and engaging the imagination."

Live theater by Zoom is working for now. Pollyanna Theatre is working on its next set of plays by Zoom. The goal right now is to break even; they are offering pick-your-price tickets to make it more affordable for families. 

"t's difficult, but every time we make payroll, I feel like it's a major victory," Matetzschk-Campbell says.

Theater staff members are looking at parameters for returning to in-person performances, Matetzschk-Campbell says. Right now, none of the venues Pollyanna Theatre uses are open to the public, including libraries and the Long Center. For an outdoor event, there would be bathrooms to consider. They've also previously surveyed families who come to shows and many are not ready for a return to in-person theater yet.

'The Missing Dinosaur Adventure'

When: 2 p.m. Saturdays Jan. 16-Feb. 27

Where: Virtually via Zoom           

Tickets: $6-$12, pick your price

Information: PollyannaTheatreCompany.org