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Child's Play? After 35 Years, It's Become So Much More

November 23, 2005 By:
Sally Friedman, JE Feature
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Laurie Wagman
The memories are marrow-deep. Laurie Wagman recalls the special exhilaration of going with her parents and sister to the opera and the theater and the old Robin Hood Dell as a child growing up in Feltonville.

"From the first moment I discovered the performing arts, I think I knew that's what I wanted to do. I thank my parents, the late Leah and Lewis Lyman, for showing me the magic of theater, and giving me that dream."

Wagman has more than made good on that dream. Today, the dynamic founder/ chairman of the American Theater Arts for Youth, Inc. (TAFY), the nationally recognized/locally headquartered organization that links professional theater to educational processes, is celebrating a mind-boggling 35th anniversary.

"It feels wonderful!" said Wagman, who reached 1.2 million students last year alone with her theater productions. The mission sounds deceptively simple: to enrich the lives of youngsters through quality theater.

But make no mistake about it; theater for kids is not child's play. Wagman knows that capturing and holding the attention of the young takes great skill, and that earliest impressions can have lifelong impact.

In her own case, the immersion began with performing. Wagman, the wife of civic leader/philanthropist Irvin J. Borowsky, sang and danced in her teen years, but a turning point came when she was invited to perform in a children's theater piece.

"I loved everything about the experience, from the physicality to the notion that kids can be touched by what they see and hear on the stage," she said.

She was definitely hooked. "I decided to write a one-woman show, and ended up with an 11-character piece that I produced myself," recalled Wagman, who enlisted a friend to help play the multiple parts. "The wonderful thing was that the kids who saw it truly thought there were 11 people on the stage."

After a brief detour teaching kindergarten and raising her children, Wagman embraced her destiny. She began writing and producing plays and found her mission in TAFY. In the process, Wagman enriched the lives of generations of youngsters.

TAFY proceeds on the theory that theater and classroom learning can go hand-in-hand, the one strengthening the other. Because theater is such a visceral medium, explained Wagman, it allows children to feel, to express themselves and, of course, to process information.

With the mighty goals of linking the theater arts to all curriculum areas, and encouraging creativity and thinking skills, Wagman has made TAFY the little engine that could.

"Theater touches the senses," said Wagman, who produces her organization's 22 annual tours to more than 400 cities. With a team of professional actors, directors and tech staff, the productions are polished gems. Wagman wouldn't have it any other way.

This indefatigable woman and her staff have produced 46 musicals and plays with subjects ranging from democracy to the nation's multicultural heritage to classics like "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Oliver Twist."

One of Wagman's most satisfying experiences has been her production of "Anne Frank," which has already reached thousands of kids in all corners of America. "I had a pretty clear portrait in my head of what it should be, and it's definitely stirred our audiences," said Wagman, who was surprised to learn that even younger children could - and do - respond to the work.

If she ever slows down long enough, Wagman would love to publish the deeply touching letters that children around the country have written to Anne after seeing the TAFY production.

In keeping with Philadelphia's spirited celebration of Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday, TAFY has just sent forth a play about the city's most famous citizen: "Benjamin Franklin: A Voice Heard" will reach at least 50,000 Pennsylvanians as it travels for the next couple of years.

Perhaps the words of former President Bill Clinton, a Wagman fan, best sum up her impact.

"Laurie Wagman has brought quality theater to every corner of America," he said. "I applaud American Theater Arts for Youth for making theater arts an integral part of American education."

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