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World’s largest child drama collection turns 30

December 17, 2007

David Saar’s son Benjamin was an avid – and sophisticated – artist from the time he was a toddler.

But then he contracted AIDS, and he was asked to leave the private school were he was a student. His friends stopped visiting him, and he stopped painting.

Benjamin, who was the first person in Arizona to die from AIDS – at the age of 8 – began painting again in the hospital, encouraged by a therapist to draw what he was feeling inside.

One of those new drawings was of a yellow boat, inspired by one of his favorite childhood stories about three boats.

That boat turned out to be more than the subject of a painting. It inspired his father, David Saar, to write a play for his theater company, Childsplay, and it helped put the ASU Child Drama Collection on the map. The Child Drama Collection, part of the department of Archives and Special Collections in Hayden Library, holds the “Yellow Boat” archives, and theater companies around the world that are planning to stage “The Yellow Boat” usually e-mail the CDC before they start.

An exhibit in the new Tempe Center for the Arts, which runs through Jan. 8, celebrates that collaboration, and illustrates the scope – and importance – of the Child Drama Collection.

The exhibit, “Childsplay’s Anniversary Celebration: 30 Years of Imagination and Wonder,” includes a poster from the 1993 premiere of “The Yellow Boat,” as well as Childsplay’s first invitation to develop a script at New Visions/New Voices Playwriting development program at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., awards, photos and more.

The Child Drama Collection, started in 1979, fills more than 1,000 linear feet of shelf space in Hayden Library. It includes production materials, posters, oral histories, musical scores, photographs, artifacts, books, slides, correspondence, scripts, costume renderings, letters from fans and much more, from noted figures in the children’s theater field and national and international organizations.

“We have the largest and most comprehensive collection in the world,” says curator Katherine Krzys. “People all over the world know about us – but not local people.”

The collection started with the gift of teaching and biographical materials from Rita Criste, a professor at Northwestern University.

“That same year, the Children’s Theatre Association of America designated ASU as the site for its archive,” Krzys says.

In 1980, ASU officially launched the Child Drama Collection, with the help of Lin Wright, former chair of the Theater Department, “in response to the academic needs of theater for youth students and faculty at ASU, and the research needs of professional artists and educators throughout the world.”

Throughout the 1980s, the collection grew with donations from playwrights, retiring professors and theatrical artists.

In some cases, Krzys has gone “into the field” to acquire materials for the collection.

In 1990, she began recording an oral history with Lowell Swortzell of New York University, who co-founded the Program in Educational Theater in New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development with his wife, Nancy.

“Lowell wrote major books on theater for youth,” Krzys says. “Their program is one of the best graduate programs for theater for youth. I went to New York many times to pack up items for the Lowell and Nancy Swortzell Collection. They are the largest donors to the Child Drama Collection.”

Her current project is going through boxes of materials from Agnes Haaga, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Drama, who helped start the award-winning Creative Drama and Children’s Theatre program there.

“Agnes, who passed away in April 2006, left 103 boxes of photos and correspondence in her house in Seattle,” Krzys says. “The executor of her estate had a local appraiser come in and look at the contents of the boxes, and he did a verbal appraisal. He thought it was extraordinary.”

But why is children’s theater so important that ASU should devote staff and space resources to it?

“When people think of children’s theater, they think of the school assembly,” Krzys says. “But now there are more than 150 professional theater companies in the United States that perform for young audiences. There’s also youth theaters with children performing for each other, and high school theater.

“It’s also about using drama to teach subjects. Lately, there have been studies that prove that drama improves people’s self-esteem and ability to cooperate, and it acknowledges the fact that there is more than one intelligence. Being talented in the arts is just as important as winning a spelling bee.”

Theater also teaches multiculturalism – a respect for other peoples’ backgrounds and traditions, Krzys says.

“By collecting the books that were important to people in the field, as well as curricula and costume and set designs, we learn from the past,” she says. “We are like a master teacher – the collection – we bring it all together in one place so people would know where it is.”

High school teachers also come in to do research at CDC, which has received a Medallion of Honor from the Children’s Theater Foundation of America.

“For a teacher wanting to teach drama, there is no better place to come,” Krzys says. “The Child Drama Collection supports the connection that ASU wants to make between the university, research and the arts.”