Enjoy the twist in Zach Theatre’s honey pot full of fun, “Winnie the Pooh”

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck

“Winnie the Pooh,” Zach Theatre’s opening musical in this year’s family series, lets children into the secret of theater. It starts with musician Allen Robertson warming up the audience by teaching the “Winnie the Pooh” dance.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

Later he appears on stage with the crew of the play: a set designer, a prop master, a stage hand and a costumer. They are going about their business, but suddenly they notice that there is an audience. Robertson declares, that no, it’s not an audience, it’s the backup dancers. This, of course, brings some giggles.

Indeed, there is an audience, and we’re told that we’ve come two weeks too early. But wait, we’ve paid money for this show! The behind-the-scenes crew will just have to put on the musical for us. They find the book on stage and begin sorting out who will play what.

It’s a delightful twist to this classic tale and the musical, which was written in 1964 by le Clanche du Rand with music from Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by author A.A. Milne and Kristin Sergel. The musical originally just starts with Pooh doing his morning exercises, not this behind-the-scenes crew turned actors vignette.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The twist allows a young audience to not have to suspend disbelief. We know it’s not really a bear, an owl, a kangaroo, a piglet, a rabbit and a donkey. Instead, it’s an adult stage crew trying to play legendary animal characters. We see them try to transform into these animals by finding hats, scarves, shirts, jackets and aprons to fit their characters. We see them give one another stage directions, such as rabbits hop, so hop more.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The fun is that the crew is very similar to their animal characters. The set designer who is chosen to play Pooh (Will Cleveland) is also a slow-motion kind of guy. The costumer (Sara Burke) has a ton of energy and positivity, perfect for Piglet and Roo. She also has the smarts of Owl. Another stage hand (J. Quinton Johnson) becomes the leader and narrator, qualities like Christopher Robin and Rabbit. The highlight is Russel, (Russel Taylor), who has as much enthusiasm as Eeyore, as he gets dragged into this production to play Eeyore and later awkwardly Kanga. He brought the biggest laughs, especially during the song-and-dance numbers.

Throughout, Allen Robertson plays the on-stage musician and coaches the crew-turned-actors on how to sing.

The kids in the audience of Friday night’s opener loved being part of the action. They loved being asked to dance and do the movements with the actors on stage; after all, they are the backup dancers, right? They loved with the actors talked to them.

If you come into this musical thinking you’re going to see a straight version of “Winnie the Pooh,” you might be disappointed, but probably you’ll be delighted with the change.

Zach Theatre’s education director Nat Miller, who directs this show, doesn’t do things in traditional ways. Last year, “The Three Little Pigs” were rock stars. Cinderella was alive in the imagination of a bilingual girl who created her out of a funnel with a doiley on it in “Cenicienta.”

This year, Zach is presenting a storybook season with “Winnie the Pooh,” running now through Dec. 12, the bilingual “Tomás and the Library Lady,” Jan. 15-Feb. 14; “James and the Giant Peach,” Feb. 19-April 10; and “Alice in Wonderland,” March 4-May 14. We can’t wait to see the twists that Miller finds for “James” and “Alice.”

“Winnie the Pooh.” 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 12. An autism and sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Oct. 31. $15-$20. Kleberg Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd. zachtheatre.org.

Before you ask for a teacher change, talk to the teacher

Most teachers want to know when there is a conflict between your child and them or a story that your child brings home that doesn't make sense. Austin ISD teacher Juli Naranjo teaches a science camp in the summer as well as fourth-grade science during the school year. Confession: She was my son's fourth grade teacher and we wouldn't have traded her for the world.  RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Most teachers want to know when there is a conflict between your child and them or a story that your child brings home that doesn’t make sense.  Juli Naranjo teaches a science camp in the summer as well as fourth-grade science during the school year. Confession: She was my son’s fourth grade teacher and we wouldn’t have traded her for the world.

You come to Meet the Teacher Night and stare at the list of classes. Really, that teacher? You so did not want Mrs. Smith for your child. Or you look at that list and realize your child’s bully from last year has ended up in your son’s class.

Or maybe it’s that every day these first few weeks, your daughter has had something bad to say about Mrs. Jones and what happened in class that day.

Or every morning starts in tears because your child suddenly no longer wants to go to school.

Is it time for your child to change classes?

First know that making a switch into another class usually doesn’t happen. Class assignments, unless in kindergarten when the school really doesn’t know your child yet, are well thought out.

Kristina Snow, who is now the director of elementary education for the Round Rock Independent School District and was previously a principal at Teravista Elementary, says a lot of people weight in about which teacher a child gets: the principal and vice principals, the counselor, previous teachers, the special education and gifted and talent staff, etc. They also are looking at the academic and behavioral mix of the class as well as parent feedback about which type of teacher might not be the best or which kids need to be separated. “It’s an intricate puzzle,” she says.

Snow and Teravista counselor Jenna Fleming say that usually at times of high stress parents start demanding a change: the first weeks of school, right before the winter break and at the end of the school year when grades become an issue.

Snow and Fleming don’t want parents to sit on their concerns and stew until they explode in February or March (that happens). Instead, they would like you to first go to the teacher to share your concerns.

Send an email using neutral language and arrange a time to talk to the teacher either by phone or in person before or after school.

Do not go straight to the principal or superintendent before talking to the teacher. Parents are often uncomfortable having the conversation with the teacher, Snow says. “They either let it fester or they come straight to the principal,” she says. “It makes things more tense.” Most principals, she says, will listen, but then will ask the parent “Have you spoken with the teacher, yet?”

“90 percent of the time, teachers and parents when they are communicating with one another, they start to develop a relationship and respect with each other,” Fleming says.

If after you’ve talked with the teacher and don’t feel heard, then you can go to the principal or counselor. Things schools take very seriously are safety concerns and 504 and special education accommodations.

Snow says there are times when she would move a student when there was a bullying situation with another student or the relationship between the parent and the teacher became so hostile it was unworkable. “When you come ready to go to war, it always ends up hindering communication and being able to be heard,” Snow says.

Most of the time, schools won’t move a student because it becomes disruptive to not only that student, but the two classes involved.

Dealing with different personalities also is one of those life skills that kids need to master. “Growth feels uncomfortable,” Fleming says, and there’s a difference between protecting a child from a bad situation and enabling a child to only get the class or teacher she wants.

It might be in the best interest of the child to leave her where she is and help her grow through this challenge, Fleming says.

You also should double check what your child is telling you. Kids can be prone to exaggeration, and while we all want to believe our children, sometimes the way she perceived a situation and the way a teacher did is entirely different.

The stories might even be true but something that the teacher is not aware of: case in point, the time the boys in my son’s third-grade class were told to measure something in the room. Guess what they went in the bathroom to measure? While that wouldn’t be a reason I would want to move my son, it was a story I thought the teacher should know. I’m sure she now changes the directions she gives for that assignment.

Teachers, of course, want to know when a child no longer wants to go to school or is complaining every day. There might be other things, not just the teacher, that are behind it such as trouble with friends, a big change in the expectations that takes an adjustment, or a sign of a mental illness like anxiety.

“Changes bring about anxiety because we’re human beings,” Fleming says. Listen to your child and be empathetic. As those big changes become part of the routine, the anxiety should lessen. If not, then it’s time to be talking to the school counselor or an outside counselor to get some help.

Also don’t believe the rumors or a friend’s impression of that teacher. “Some of the best teachers aren’t super popular, but they are incredible teachers,” Snow says.

Review: “Sarah the Dinosaur” from Pollyanna Theatre Company

"Sarah the Dinosaur" comes to the Long Center this weekend.
“Sarah the Dinosaur” comes to the Long Center this weekend.

When we first see Sarah from Pollyanna Theatre Company’s “Sarah the Dinosaur,” she is meek. The second-grader and her class are visiting a museum and all the other kids pair up and are having a fine time. She is left out.

When we last see Sarah, she has found her voice and learned how to use it appropriately, and has learned a lot of cool things about dinosaurs.

The production at the Long Center is designed for preschoolers and early elementary-school children. It was written by Kathleen Fletcher and Andrew Perry, and five actors play all the characters from students and teachers to family members and dinosaurs.

In this production, you get to see a little bit of how theater is made as you watch a stagehand or the actors move the sets to turn a museum into a home, school yard or classroom. You also watch a table turn into a bed. It’s a great entry into theater for children who have never seen a live production.

“Sarah the Dinosaur” is also insight into a young girl’s mind. As Sarah played by Uyen-Anh Dang reads a dinosaurs book, dinosaurs appear on the stage and act how she might imagine. They do the hula, they fly like an airplane, they go to the grocery store for a steak. It reminds kids that imagination and creativity are good.

Some of the performances are over-the-top, especially from the dinosaurs, which made the audience giggle. However, there a disconnect between how the children act and the idea that they are second-graders. Some of their behavior makes them feel more like preschoolers, yet they are reading and writing.

The mother is a 1950s housewife stereotype with a robe and hair rollers. All she’s missing is the dangling cigarette. The teacher is like no elementary school teacher I know. She’s unobservant and unprofessional. She definitely doesn’t have control of this classroom. She has a good heart, though.

The obnoxious kids and the dumbed-down adults remind of the shows on the Disney Channel that present an idea that parents are always stupid and children can get attention for being  obnoxious.

“Sarah” definitely sends a message that is worth seeing: Growing up is not just about getting bigger; it’s about growing on the inside by admitting when you are wrong and learning how to find your voice.

Summer can be a hard time to find good theater for kids to see. This summer, we’ve been lucky: “Inside Out” is in movie theaters and “Sarah the Dinosaur” is on stage. Think of them as companion pieces to the lesson of growing up and dealing with emotions.

Pollyanna Theatre Co.presents “Sarah the Dinosaur.”

When: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. Saturday.

Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive.

Tickets: $11-$15.50.

Information: thelongcenter.org.

Read about past Pollyanna Theatre productions here, here and here.