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Backstage West Feature
June 2, 2005

Powerhouse, Creative PlayGround 'Free' Atalanta
By Sarah Kuhn

If you're a child of the 1970s, you can probably recite or sing parts of Marlo Thomas' classic childrens' album Free To Be...You and Me by heart. The album and its companion television special featured Thomas and famous friends such as Harry Belafonte, Alan Alda, and Carol Channing performing free-thinking empowerment songs and skits such as "Parents Are People" and "It's All Right to Cry."

For Karen Hardcastle and Elizabeth Tobias, artistic directors of the Los Angeles-based theatre company Creative PlayGround, the story that resonates most is "Atalanta," a tale of a clever princess who would just as soon not get married, even though there is no shortage of interested suitors. The duo has partnered with the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica to bring a musical production of the story to the stage. Atalanta will have its world theatrical premiere June 4.

"Both [Karen and I] grew up on Free to Be...You and Me, and have [a lot of] respect for the source material," said Tobias. "It is, without doubt, a part of why we do what we do -- part of what inspired us to become not only artists, but artist-educators.

"The project took flight when Andrew Barrett-Weiss, executive artistic director at the Powerhouse, asked Hardcastle and Tobias a simple question. "[He] said, 'If you could adapt anything, if you had a dream, what would it be?'" remembered Tobias, "Karen, without a beat, said, 'Atalanta.' It is, for both of us, our favorite story from that album. In addition, [Creative PlayGround's] audiences have been growing older -- we started eight years ago and we performed for very young children, and a lot of our families have been coming to see our shows for seven years. Their kids are older now -- they're 13, 14 -- and [their parents have] been asking us, 'Can you develop something that we can still bring our whole family to?' This seemed to be a perfect combination of those things, something that Karen and I both believed in, [and] something that our audience was ready for."

One hurdle stood in the way, however -- Thomas had never before allowed an adaptation of the Free to Be... stories. Barrett-Weiss, who serves as a producer on the production, approached Thomas and Free to Be... producer Carole Hart about doing "Atalanta." "[Thomas] said, 'You all seem genuine, you all seem talented, I'm going to do it, but you have to understand -- I won't be involved on a day-to-day basis, but I absolutely will be involved in terms of approving and guiding and directing you, because this story is very close to my heart, and you have to be able to work with that,' and we said we would," said Barrett-Weiss. "It's been smooth. We've been very fortunate.

"Hardcastle scripted the play's book and lyrics, while composer and musical director David O wrote the music. Thomas, Hart, and director David Mowers contributed ideas along the way, and Tobias serves as producer and plays the title role of Atalanta.

One challenge in adapting the story into a full-fledged musical: the source material is only seven-and-a-half minutes long. "Things had to be fleshed out, and [Karen] made some amazing choices," said Tobias. "For instance, she added [the] character of Atalanta's best friend, whose name is Diana. Diana is a writer and wants to be a minstrel, but she's nervous about it, because she's not sure if she's a good enough musician and she's a girl, and there [aren't] a lot of girl minstrels. So Atalanta inspires her to go on to make that choice, and in fact, the first minstrel song that she writes is the story of her friend Atalanta. That's the framing device that Karen created for the play.

"Barrett-Weiss and Tobias believe the finished product is something families can enjoy together. "I think the kids will enjoy it, [and] I think the parents will be on the edge of their seats just as much.... I think here you have a real, genuinely popular entertainment that can travel anywhere and everywhere and doesn't have the cynicism that so much of our theatre these days has, but has a tremendous sense of energy, excitement, and hope," said Barrett-Weiss.

And the story's timeless message, said Tobias, makes it an especially important one to tell. "There's a lot of stuff out right now that seems to be about empowering young girls, but I don't always feel like that's the case," she said. "I still feel as an artist, as a woman, and as an arts educator, that power for young girls still seems to be tied somehow into what they look like and whether or not they get married.... Young girls just need to be reminded again, that just like young boys...what is inside of you, the things that you want, the things that you believe, the strengths that you have at your core, is your best asset -- not the way you look, not the way you're shaped, and not your boyfriend. That's something that we think is very important to say again and again and again, every way we can -- not to just young women, but to young men, too. We all need to hear that, I think."

Thomas, it seems, felt the same way. Said Barrett-Weiss, "[Marlo] was sort of excited by the idea when we first approached her -- she said, 'I do think this story is timeless... and I do think it's worth telling again.'"

"Atalanta" will be presented by Creative Playground in association with and at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Jun. 4-Jul. 17. $20. Call (310) 396-3680 or visit http://www.powerhousetheatre.com/.

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