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Theater for toddlers? Carol North keeps pushing boundaries, sharing stories in last year at Metro

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Carol North of Metro Theater Company is a storyteller. Ask her a question and it’s not uncommon for her to answer with a narrative, sometimes going back a couple of decades and across a half-dozen states.

Stories are integral to the mission of Metro Theater, which has woven magical, meaningful tales for children under North’s direction for 33 years. This year, as Metro celebrates its 40th anniversary, North, 66, is marking her last year with the company. Her husband, Metro resident artist Nick Kryah, is also departing.

When they were hired in the 1970s, they didn’t know each other, and North never expected romance to blossom. Neither did she imagine becoming Metro’s artistic director. But one day, the then-director threw the opportunity into her lap, saying, “I’m leaving. You take it, or it dies.”

“I had no idea what it would mean to say, ‘OK,’” North remembers. “I just knew that what we were doing was genuinely important and I loved it.”

AIDS, death and fear

Having no business background, North learned the ropes of running a theater company on the fly. Early on, after the Regional Arts Commission was founded, it was “a no-brainer” to apply there for funds.

“But I thought, ‘I’ve never even done a grant before,’” North says.

North mastered the business challenges and embraced the artistic ones. She pushed boundaries. That meant taking on topics that parents and educators didn’t always find suitable for children. But North doesn’t sell children short.

As we talk, she points to a child’s drawing above her desk. She tells the story of the artist, a boy named Benjamin, who had hemophilia and then contracted AIDS. He was the son of friend and colleague David Saar, who founded a theater company in Phoenix.

In 1987, Benjamin’s death inspired Saar and North to create a play about his life and its end, including the rejection he experienced after his diagnosis. His Montessori school kicked him out. Parents refused to let their children attend his birthday parties.

“The world was still hysterical about AIDS, totally hysterical,” North recalls.

The 7-year-old became severely depressed and withdrawn. But a child-life specialist visiting Benjamin’s hospital encouraged him to make art. Soon, his drawings and paintings were dominated by a yellow boat, based on a Norwegian folk tune his mother sang.

“At the end of the day, the blue boat comes back and the red boat comes back, but the yellow boat sails straight for the sun,” North says. “The yellow boat became this vibrant character.”

But even by 1993, St. Louis wasn’t ready for the play, “The Yellow Boat.” “The automatic assumption was that the play was going to be about sexual choices and that we’d be handing out condoms,” North says.

Once people understood it was about a child, the idea of dramatizing a child’s death also met fierce resistance. Metro built alliances with the local hemophilia chapter and BJC Hospitals, and performed the play for doctors and nurses. But only a few schools allowed their students to see it.

“It was a fear reaction,” North says.

Gender takes the stage

Twenty years later, the idea of questioning gender stereotypes can provoke as much fear as AIDS. “Unsorted,” a playful look at gender and other differences,  will be part of the May 3-5 MetroNEXT Festival of New Work. This is the first year the festival has encompassed an entire weekend, thanks to an $80,000 RAC innovation grant.

With the help of local counselors, social workers, and supportive school superintendents and principals, Metro is getting St. Louis used to the idea of examining traditional ideas about gender.

“We’re going about it in a very similar way as we did ‘The Yellow Boat.’ We’re drawing a circle of advocates around us,” North says.

The characters are pieces of clothing in an imaginary world. They’re forced to divide into two groups, Zums and Zing Zings, based on colors, food preferences and skills such as the ability to fix motor toys.

“This play is essentially about identity, about who we are,” North says. “And who we are is complicated -- and isn’t that great?”

Attention span optional

North leaves Metro after settling the company into a new, 7,000-square-foot home on Washington Avenue in midtown St. Louis.

Within its new walls and as part of MetroNEXT, the company is expanding its offerings to include a group notorious for its inability to pay attention: toddlers. But a long attention span is not a requirement for theater aimed at children as young as 2.

Metro’s “Baby Garden” theater piece doesn’t even require them to sit still -- or sit at all. From beginning to end -- about 30 minutes -- it engages them along a path.

“Musicians playing live music will greet the children as they come in,” North explains. “And each of the children will receive a garden baby that will go on a journey with them.”

That winding journey includes bright colors, shapes and textures, and even a short nap with a new friend. “It acknowledges the really rich sensory audience that really young children are,” North says.

Rounding out the weekend’s offerings is a play called “Talkin’ Trash,” about a boy’s fascination with recycling and his neighbor’s struggle with mental illness.

As Metro Theater Company begins to search for its next true North -- a new artistic director -- the process will be much more involved than the quick, “You take it” offer that North received. The results of the national search should be revealed in October.

After they retire in January 2014, North and Kryah plan to concentrate on their children, grandchildren and individual writing projects. North prefers to not go into detail about something she shyly calls a “chronicle,” but definitely not a “memoir.”

“That word makes me cringe. It feels very self-indulgent,” North says. “I think there’s a larger story that my journey is in, but it’s about a lot more than that.”

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