Who would expect that, while exploring a natural wonderland of more than 100 acres of woodlands, meadows and streams, families would come upon enchanting children’s performances of music, dance and puppetry? If the woodlands happen to be Wolf Trap—the nation’s only national park dedicated to the performing arts—such an extraordinary experience is not only possible, but typical throughout the summer for families visiting the park’s Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods.
The journey to the amphitheater nestled in nature is as enchanting as its performances. Visitors follow a little trail from the parking lot, across a bridge over a creek and through a grove of trees.
“The setting is magical, and this intimate venue is a very comfortable environment for children to experience the performing arts for the first time,” said Cate Bechtold, Wolf Trap’s director of community programs. “There is general admission rather than reserved seats, so children can move around. And they don’t have to sit still in their seats with their hands on their laps. In fact, our artists encourage the audience to dance and sing along!”
In compiling the season’s lineup, the folks at Wolf Trap search the arts landscape throughout the world for candidates, with a number of factors in mind. First of all, they seek high-quality performances: This season’s roster features 24 acts, which include 14 Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods first-timers, eight Parents Choice Award winners and two Grammy nominees. Secondly, they look for diversity both in terms of the cultures represented and the performance genres. A sampling of this month’s offerings is a testament to their job well done.
Today’s featured act is “Unspoken Stories” by the Taratibu Youth Association, performing styles that range from African traditional and hip-hop to modern dance and ballet. The dancers, musicians and vocalists range in age from 12-18.
“It is wonderful to feature young performers. When the children see them onstage, they are really intrigued and engaged,” said Bechtold. “You see them walking out after the performance mimicking the moves they saw.”
Friday’s highlight is a return appearance from Ants Ants Ants. The guitar-playing duo celebrates the simple things in life with uplifting, catchy melodies that spark children’s sense of wonder and imagination and take adults down memory lane to that wonderful spirit of childhood.
On July 5-6, the Madcap Puppets—a longstanding favorite—will take the audience out of this world in the Great Space Caper of an explorer named Buzby, who crash-lands his spaceship on a strange planet and discovers a new friend, Galax. Together, the two uncover mysteries of the universe as they search for a new planet that the little cosmic creature can call home.
This summer’s Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods offerings include music, puppetry, dance and even yoga representing African, Irish, Latin and Indian cultures. A full schedule is available online.
“The experience of live performances is participatory and immersive. The children are learning to interact with and appreciate different cultures, both through peers in the audience and the performers onstage,” said Bechtold.
Take-home coloring sheets are available that highlight the countries represented in the performances.
After the shows, families are invited and encouraged to “Stay and Play” on the adjacent meadow and are welcome to picnic. Bring a blanket; tables are also available in both sunlit and shady areas. Games and toys such as balls, Frisbees and hula hoops will be provided for free-play, and trail maps will also be given to families who want to explore the park’s hiking trails.
In addition, select performances are followed by free artist-led workshops. Topics include an introduction to various types of music production, incorporating information about wildlife in music, an introduction to yoga, learning basic Irish dance steps and footwork, and creating take-home sock puppets.
The park rangers will also lead programs ranging from the history of Wolf Trap and a backstage tour, to a woodland garden tour and an introduction to the animals and birds that make the site their home. On June 29, July 10 and July 30, the rangers will host Junior Ranger Days, in which young guests can earn their badges by engaging in outdoor activities.
“Our shows are designed so that adults will enjoy them as much as the children. We hope families will come repeatedly through the season; there are new offerings every day,” said Bechtold. “I hope families will leave with a new appreciation for the performing arts and a renewed love of nature. It is a perfect opportunity for them to disconnect from technology and reconnect with one another!”