Chicago’s Child’s Play Touring Theatre, co-founded by June Padagakos Podagrosi, mines the unfiltered imagination of youth.
Child’s Play: the essense of imagination
The name says it all: Child’s Play. This is the essence of imagination. The ability of the mind to wonder and play, to invent. Einstein mastered it. Whether it be a Venus Fly Trap devouring watches or a flower refusing to be photosynthesized (two of a myriad of child contributions to Child’s Play), these ideas emanate from the young mind’s unfiltered convergence. It may start as silliness, but at times can blossom into light quanta, space-time or innovative agricultural businesses later in life.
About Child’s Play
Founded in 1978, Chicago’s Child’s Play Touring Theatre, a 501(c)3 charity, was once graced by Greek American film/TV actor Tina Fey in her formative theatrical years. What attracts talent to CPTT is it was the first theater group to tap into the brilliant imagination of youth and use it to inspire kids themselves.
We recently visited with Co-Founder June Panagakos Podagrosi and President Diana Mendoza to learn more about the mission, and we may have stumbled upon a treasure trove of scripts dating back 38 years. Authors and Hollywood producers, take note.
June began in the arts at age three, singing to senior citizens. Her parents, including her Greek American father whose parents hailed from Sparta, wanted June to be the first female president. June’s create side prevailed and she earned a masters in dance from the University of Illinois. There she met Victor Podagrosi, who was studying theater. The two married shortly after college. Tragically, Victor died of a heart attack at the age of 41. The Victor Award and endowment were created in his memory.
Diana has been CPTT president for 10 years. A marketing major with a masters in law, she’s been affiliated with CPTT for decades. Her introduction was when her daughter wrote a script which was adapted into a play.
“The story was a flower that refused to be photosynthesized.When I saw the effect Child’s Play Touring Theatre had on children, I had to be involved. It just grabbed me,” recalled Diana, a 2011 Victor Award honoree.
Child’s Play Touring Theatre grows
At their peak in the mid-90’s, when arts funding was more bountiful, CPTT received many grants, including decades of support from the MacArthur Foundation. The shows were in schools across the nation and June employed three full-time touring troupes of four members each and five full-time administrative/creative staff. There was critical acclaim with two Emmy Awards.
“After Victor passed, we had another six years of growth. It was not only his absence but also that arts funding began to diminish across the board after 9/11. Fortunately, we had already established that we were able to break down walls with the kids,” said June. “The synergy between us and the kids brings the magic. It’s immensely empowering to them. Victor would use their imagination and turn it into the best Broadway production he could,” June said.
CPTT creative process
June and Victor had a vision: Aggregate material from elementary-age school kids, add humor, music, dance and panache, and hire professional actors to perform shows live in schools and other institutions. They invented the genre and it was – and still is – a huge hit with the kids.
“Our work is transmogrify. It transforms something into something else and allows kids to experience their work, their imagination, as part of the `pros,’ so to speak. Victor found his bliss working with kids. Victor and I had our own synergy. He wrote scripts, I handled audience participation. We could do anything together,” June continued.
The process works two ways. CPTT writers take material and incorporate it into story lines for an entire production, or combine works from different children (all in the same class) and create an amalgam of short stories.
A seed can grow
“It’s probably the biggest thing that’s ever happened to them to that point in their young lives. They’re on the edge of their seat waiting for their moment. There may be 100 people in attendance but to them it probably seems more like a thousand. From that, a seed can grow,” Diana added.
Such moments can provide children with a vital early sense of self-worth at a stage where they’re most impressionable. In years past, CPTT received some anti-violence funding from law enforcement. Many kids aren’t infused with positive reinforcement and CPTT gives them something, anything.
“Kids are the foundation of our future. We get more from them than they get from us. Their unbridled creativity and enthusiasm is infectious. They don’t censor. They keep you honest. We don’t do anything that doesn’t have a positive message and that adds ethics to our mission. With that, we may be sitting on a potential gold mine of material. Thirty-eight years’ worth of youthful imagination run wild on topics with morality tales. We used some of that to create a show about reducing your carbon footprint. We’ll be publishing `Global Energy: The Musical,’ which includes a music CD/video with digital drops,” said June.
Famous CPTT alumni
In the early ’90’s, a young talent named Tina Fey came through the CPTT doors and served a stint as a teaching artist. Fey’s husband-to-be, screenwriter/actor Jeff Richmond, also played a role at CPTT. In 2012, Richmond was honored with a Victor Award. Fey and Richmond, along with another CPTT alum and Victor Award winner (2014), Hollywood screenwriter Adam McKay (“SNL”), made a sizable donation to kick off the Victor Memorial Fund. Yet another notable CPTT alum is Tammi Sagher, of “30 Rock” fame.
Recent signs point to a resurgence. June is actively pursuing new partnerships and will be attending the APAP international booking conference in NYC. She’s also finalizing a large endowment from a newly-established foundation. Last Summer, June was invited to a Brooklyn, NY taping of a new Netflix original show where she was a VIP guest of Fey and got to sit in the director’s chair.
Notable individuals involved with CPTT are board member Toni Berrios, a former Illinois State Representative, and advisory board members Sondra Healy (chair of Turtle Wax Corporation), WGN radio personality Anna Davlantes, former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine, author Peter Lerangis, actor Allen Ruck (“Ferris Buhler’s Day Off”), and Richmond.
Not to be forgotten are those 38 years’ worth of “unbridled” truth and youthful imagination just waiting to be re-discovered in the CPTT vault. Hello, Hollywood!
Child’s Play Touring Theatre is located at 5097 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago. Phone 773.235.8911.
* Editor’s note: The writer of this article serves on the CPTT advisory board