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Doug Berky's Stories Inspire Kids

His Theatreworks productions show us life isn't a dress rehearsal

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The eyes of a child spark the flames of imagination; exposure being the ultimate denominator in determining a child's passion for the arts. An arts community is only as strong as the population that supports, advocates and champions for it to be the essential bedrock of its community. It is our investment in that exposure that guarantees the return of dividends: An engaged community of arts advocates enabling civil discourse.

For nearly 30 years, the nonprofit organization Theatreworks has been affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Northeast Florida children, bringing professional, educational touring theater productions to the region; the shows are staged in school auditoriums, professional theater venues and libraries. The value to teachers and schools is immeasurable; each production is curriculum-based and provides teachers with study guides, satisfying the benchmarks of the Sunshine State Standards of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

"For many, a Theatreworks show will be the first exposure to live theater, and we want to make certain that the show is engaging, with ample educational support materials to ensure that teachers and parents have the tools to make the most of the experience," says Theatreworks Executive Director Jamie Kent. "We believe it is vital for our youngsters to develop a tradition and taste for theater, so they can broaden their horizons and continue to seek out these experiences later in life. Theatreworks' plays not only introduce the young of our city to the special experience of live theater, but develop the audience that will attend many of our other valued cultural events in the future. The Theatreworks audience of today cultivates the audience of the future for other cultural organizations such as Players by the Sea, Theatre Jacksonville and The Florida Theatre tomorrow."

Through fiscal sponsors and partnerships with organizations such as Citi, The Florida Theatre, Publix Super Markets, Carl S. Swisher Foundation, and others, Theatreworks stages kid-oriented productions for underserved and disadvantaged children at no cost or at reduced fees.

One of the nonprofits' core programs, Free Summer Theatre, which continues to be financially underwritten by Citi for more than 20 years, ensures free access to professional theatrical comedies, musicals and dramas. Theatreworks, in partnership with The Florida Theatre, makes 10,000 free seats available to summer programs, camps, small nonprofit agencies and individual families.

For this 22nd annual Free Summer Theatre, two notable shows this week are by internationally recognized performer and puppeteer Doug Berky, an artist whose career spans more than three decades. Berky's performances gather physical comedy, mask construction/performance, mime, storytelling and circus arts under one banner, creating a unique vision and experience for the audience.

On Thursday, June 21, Berky stages Foibles, Fables and Other Imaskinations, a traditional theater experience, as he guides the audience through stories from around the world, enacted by his world-famous puppets, with mime, voice and masks. Berky's Friday, June 22 performance, No Show, showcases his trademark blend of physical humor, sight gags, puppetry, music, juggling, audience interaction and improvisation.

"I am a visual person and having a story seen, as well as heard, is a part of how I express myself," says Berky. "The masks and puppets allow me to bring to the stage a diverse cast of characters that often look and sound different from me and my audiences. Or, in some cases, a child might see someone who looks like them. Once, I was telling a Native American story about a little boy who learns to provide for his grandmother. When the show was over, a 7-year-old came to me and said, 'I am an Indian, I could be that boy!' The reason I tell stories is to empower and inspire children to embrace possibilities that they might not otherwise have imagined."

Theatreworks' yearly programming mission is to bring children's literature to the stage, with a strong emphasis on African-American heritage. Last year, the organization brought Harriet Tubman & the Underground Railroad. This year, We the People is scheduled for October to help support civics lessons around Northeast Florida; Buffalo Soldiers and Rosie Revere, Engineer will run in January 2019.

Teachers are encouraged to communicate with Theatreworks to help determine what are the keys to creating successful and impacting performances for students.

"The emotional connection of live theater not only helps cultivate the love of the arts but has educational value as well. This is an added dimension to simply reading or watching on the small screen and helps the child recognize what real people are thinking and feeling. It also offers a tool to compare and contrast what has been written to the interpretation on stage, offering a broader view of the source material," says Kent. "At a live performance, the children are allowed to be emotionally engaged, uninterrupted for a solid hour, with living characters who develop relationships, overcome obstacles and resolve conflicts. Live theater shows can open children to a wealth of experiences and, hopefully, awaken a desire to pick up a book or, more important, see another play."

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