Volume II, Issue 5           Monday, November 22nd, 2004           Florida State University - Panama Student E-Zine

Teatro De Los Niños
(in dialectic)

by L.M. Wilhelm

     I noticed quite a while ago that there was more activity than usual in the region of our small, normally vacant, auditorium. People were moving in and out, there were lights and strange electronic voices wafting from the door, which now always stands ajar. People with paint in their hair and bandages on their fingers were seen in an endless stream of motion. And the dust cloud that plumed from beneath the walls one evening I believe has yet to settle. This is perhaps the very conception of a cultural revolution, the beginnings of a new foundation; this is Teatro De Los Niños! If you accuse me of being overdramatic my only defense shall be to urge you to read on, find out what is this strange and lively force which has infested our dingy, lifeless auditorium, and find out how you can join in!

     The founding fathers of Teatro De Los Niños are Vernon Skitt and Bob Stiff. I interviewed them last week and without further ado I present this exchange to you in its raw and unpolished form, and thus it begins:

     As I set up my camera (for the purpose of accurate recording) Bob and Vernon break into chorus, a harmonized version of “We’ll Do it Together” I believe. Bob groans, “Oh god is that thing on?” “Well yes,” I reply. “But we can start the interview now if you want (laugh).” So…

     What is your background in the performing arts? (Both of you, either of you)

     Bob: Uhm my background as far as the entertainment industry is concerned is, I was a screenwriter, am a screenwriter, for television and motion pictures. I started writing for Magnum P.I. many years ago and since then.. Uh.. I was headwritter for L.A. Heat, I directed and wrote for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which is what most people seam to think is the greatest thing ever.... Law and Order Special Victim’s Unit, ..I had a motion picture that was produced in 2002 called Spider’s Web which was just on television here in Panama recently, they totally screwed my script up, but that’s par for the course, and I’ve never watched it all the way through, I couldn’t, wept copious tears. Uhm, ..and I am writing a children’s play now to be produced here at Teatro De Los Niños, called The Magic Mola,... I was just contracted to write a script for C.S.I. Miami.. which I’m not going to do, ..‘cause I don’t want to. And I wrote for several other shows as well and I co-wrote and directed for the Pasadena Playhouse, “An Evening with Noel Coward” it was excerpts of various plays of that gentleman...uh..and I also directed several plays, stage plays, in the L.A. area.... So for the last 35 years I’ve been in the entertainment industry.

     Vernon: I’d say my duration in the entertainment industry overall, in theater, has been pretty much the same, about 35 years, maybe a fraction longer but I doubt it. Although I did star in uhm as Baron Boris Clearoff when I was 5 (laugh) and I still remember the opening line to the show to this very day!

     Bob: Most of the sets you see here (Teatro De Los Niños), a lot of it he (Vernon) built and uh..and I have been, as I’ve told him, been steadily amazed at his craftsmanship as to if we need lights installed he does electrical, if we need sound he does sound, we needed that backdrop for the play he sewed it himself on his little tiny sewing machine, he has sewn curtains but the stage here was not well equipped at all. We’ve added, what was it at the last count? Almost 20000 dollars worth of equipment. We’ve added to the stage here, two sets of working curtains, full set of lighting, professional lighting and so forth.

     (Vernon also mentions that he is trying to fix the sound & lights board upstairs, most of the equipment in the theater was broken and malfunctioning when Teatro De Los Niños began to set up here at FSU).

     Why are you in Panama?

     Vernon: Why am I in Panama?

     Bob: And tell the truth! (Laugh)

     Vernon: Warmer than England. (Laugh) I’ve had enough of England basically, its a rat race living there as it seems to be in most of the, as they call themselves, first world countries. The business pressure, the pressure of day-to-day life is huge on individuals. I was one of the ones that the pressure was just too much for, so I decided to cop-out and come here where life is much more relaxed and pleasurable, apart from the fact that the climate is better. Which, if you spoken with many Englishmen, that that’s one of their main stays in life! (Laugh) is to get away from the weather. So I’m here because I enjoy it.

     Bob: (under his breath) And the pretty ladies

     Vernon: And the pretty ladies!

     Bob: Uh, I had decided to retire early and I was going to write quite a bit.. and I decided, no, I just wanted to retire, like Vernon, L.A. is a rat race and especially the entertainment industry, its a very very very stressful business and I checked out a lot of different countries, to move to, and Panama just came out number one. I like the fact that there is an infrastructure here that I’m familiar with because of the American occupation, as we call it here, uh.. so I was familiar with that, but its still different enough to make it challenging, I’m 62 and so I want my retirement years to be a challenge and I don’t, I find now after a year and a half, I don’t like the United States as far as a place to live anymore, and I have to go up every 4 months for medical reasons and I can’t wait to get home (back to Panama), I used to stay 2 weeks, then it was a week and a half, now its five days and that’s the minimum so I can see all my friends that want to see me and all that, but Panama is home now. I love the culture and I love the people.

     Why did you decide to start Teatro De Los Niños?

     Vernon: (the fact that we have both retired here) is one of the reasons for setting up Teatro De Los Niños. Because we wanted to put something back, we both enjoy the country here and feel that, obviously because we’re living here now, we’re taking a little away from Panama, taking advantage of its benefits so we’re turning the tables and putting something back by trying to introduce something cultural and enjoyable and passing on our skills to Panamanians.

     Bob: Same here, and its just sort of a thank-you gift because our goal is just to, after the first three or four shows, is to fade into the background. We’ve brought people aboard that can do that (take-over productions) that are Panamanian. We’re having a playwriting contest and we want to start getting more and more Panama related stories, for the children, not only to entertain them but also for them to learn about their own culture because everything right now is all very Euro-centric and I won’t do anything here that’s American like “Tom Sawyer” or that kind of thing, it all has to be pretty of broad based stories that the children know and then “The Magic Mola” that I’m doing is going to be the very first one that we’re going to try to do that s about Panama.

     What do you think the community will gain from Teatro De Los Niños?

     Vernon: We’ll be sort of experimenting a little with different styles of show, to bring to the children things that are a little bit different, uhm, things they won’t have seen before, but where possible we’re making it as Panamanian as possible, for example, in June/July, or thereabouts next year, we’re starting a playwriting contest where local people will be able to supply their scripts, there will be cash prizes. The top three will also have the benefit of their productions being seen on stage, we will produce them here; having done that we will distribute them throughout Latin America so that Panamanian subjects, Panamanian plays will become a norm for a source of supply of cultural plays about Panama, for Panama. For example some of the rules we’ve made in the competition will be the subject has to be Panamanian, it has to do with Panama, if possible it has to be slightly educational, folk story, historical hero, like that.

     Who is and can participate in Teatro De Los Niños?

     Bob: Anybody who would show up! That’s been the biggest problem...

     Vernon: Anybody that has the desire to learn if they are not experienced or skilled we have the facilities and abilities to teach. Uh acting, producing, directing, set building, set design, artistic interpretation. And on that subject, we’ll be running 7 hours anyway here at the university and possibly other locations, those seminars are to do with theater, those are part of the projects that Teatro De Los Niños will be undertaking, just to pass on some of the skills and information to do with theater. So people that wish to be connected! But one of the things we’ve been having a great deal of trouble with is having people stand by their decisions when they say “Yes we want to do it” they don’t follow through by appearing, showing up, to do it.

     Bob: I mean between us we’ve got a tremendous amount of knowledge to give to whoever wants it you know, and so far, nobody wants it; it’s absolutely amazing to me.

     Vernon: The leisure industry in Panama is going to be responsible for a lot of the country’s income, tourism and leisure in general. Cultural things. And theater is a very strong part of that. It has a lot of spin off in many directions; also employment will come from it, from the leisure industry. It’s happening worldwide, it will happen here in Panama in equal proportion, so people need to pay attention. A lot of the future jobs will be in this sort of industry and related industries like TV and movies. All these sights will strengthen here in Panama and if you haven’t got the basic skills that come from acting, or producing or directing then you’re going to be missing out on some of the business opportunities here.

     What do you hope to gain from Teatro De Los Niños?

     Vernon: Fun! (Laugh) I enjoy it, uhm, I enjoy being involved in theater, I enjoy helping people be involved in theater, I like to see people progress. I like to see new-comers arrive all timid and 18 months down the line they doing leading roles or doing heavy weight jobs within the theater, its nice to bring people on and help them realize some of their ambitions, all be it professionally or an amateur format.

     Bob: Well its just like the lady that is directing this show (Beauty and The Beast) she’s always been assistant to the director, she’s always sort of taken over when he or she wasn’t there and so forth. This is her opportunity now to direct. Our next show in February, which will be Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, uh we’re giving a young actor his first opportunity to direct, with us standing in the background. Anytime he’s got a question or anytime we think he’s mis-stepping we’ll suggest something but his decision will be final, as a director should. What we hope to gain out of it (Teatro De Los Niños) we’re not a not-for-profit, and we’ve done that deliberately because what we have done is we’re planning to assist people in climbing up that ladder, this is something that is very important to both of us. We have a young lady who is working for the theater now whose family lives on $250 dollars a month and we just signed a contract with her to produce puppets for us to sell, and they are going to make $300 dollars on that. And other examples like this. This is very important to us because there are charities that we want to assist if we can.

     Vernon: we’ll be allocating part of the funds that we produce through Teatro De Los Niños to some of these causes like helping somebody get into school, get through school, get uniforms, a computer, things that individuals some times struggle with. People that you can see the talent is there, they just need a helping hand, so Teatro De Los Niños, one of its aims is to help people with things like that, to give them that little boost up the ladder so they can get on with their lives and improve themselves. And that is something we both enjoy doing. I know Bob in the past has done a lot in supporting children, and I’ve done the same. It’s the sort of thing you get a kick out of! If you have the resources. And part of the job of Teatro De Los Niños is to get those resources.

     Bob: If you give and give, you always get.

     What do you hope the future of Teatro De Los Niños will be, where do you see it ending up?

     Vernon: we’ve got a lot of plans for example we intend to, as soon as possible, build a mobile version and take Teatro De Los Niños out into the country of Panama in general to the schools out there to the kids out there in the interior who never get to see theater. We’re hoping to equip the mobile unit which we hope someone will help sponsor. The mobile unit will be the same shows but in a traveling format, probably another cast. Our main goal is to build a repertory company where we have a group of people that we can call on and they are constantly rotating in tasks and jobs, one month they will starring in the leading role, the following month they might be directing, the month after that they might appear in the lighting, the month after that they might be on the road traveling Panama performing one of the tasks to do the same thing but in a mobile basis. We want to sort of pull into a center of town or a village, pull a few levers, press a few buttons, and out pops a theater and suddenly the magic of theater is there for all the kids that can’t get here to see a production.

     Bob: that’s why we call it Teatro De Los Niños De Panama, because eventually we want it to be national in scope, and that’s exciting!

     Vernon: We’ve also got things like our mascots uh which the puppet (Bob brings out a yellow puppet) is built on. They are two Panamanian golden frogs that’s found around the El Valley region, and their called Tonti and Tanti (a girl and boy frog) These two are going to become famous in Panama. We hope to turn them into cartoon characters, maybe even do TV with them. They’ll be hidden all over Panama and kids that find them will receive prizes and awards and things, free tickets to come to shows or whatever, uhm, so there will be all sorts of exciting things going on, we’ve got a website in development, an interactive one. Education through a strong entertainment media. We’ll utilize the frogs and the plays to aid getting messages across. So the kids will be unaware of it, but they will actually be learning at the same time they’re enjoying themselves (laugh) That’s what all media is about really. All theater is just day-to-day stories, stories of life, that’s theater.

     Why did you choose FSU to start Teatro De Los Niños?

     Vernon: Why did we start here? Because the university was kind enough to make it affordable here. They have a need or a desire to develop the drama section in Panama, which FSU Tallahassee is famous for. But here in Panama – nothing. So their interest is in developing drama and what better way than being associated with a drama group! Once we’ve done the first production here, the students will inevitably sneak in and see it, and when they see the quality and the standard and the interest and the excitement going on, its going to sort of gravitate into the student body here and they will want to become more involved in the drama groups we have here, the seminars we will be running here and other things, and the university is hoping that that is what they need to build a drama department. So its mutual benefit really.

     Bob: And FSU also has a facility and a friend of ours who is on the board of directors thought it would be a good tie-in, FSU wants to get its name out in public more so we’ve formed this sort of agreement that is Omega Entertainment Group, which is our parent company, in association with Florida State University Panama presents Teatro De Los Niños, and that way they’re out there and it helps them and it helps us. I’m just disappointed in the lack of participation from the students.

     Thank you so much for talking with me, any parting words?

     Bob: Well just that what we have planned on for Teatro De Los Niños was to be an added venue for children’s entertainment, and anyone’s entertainment, in Panama. We’re not in competition with the other theater groups; we hope to be an adjunct to them. We want to be become part of the Panamanian entertainment family so to speak. Uh, and there’s absolutely no ulterior motives, there’s absolutely nothing, its just that we are here 10 to 12 hours a day purely out of love of theater and its fun to see this start to take life. For example, we had a set the other day, and we had never seen it on stage, we happened to have the stage lights on and we rolled it out, and everybody just stopped and went, “Ahhh,… oh my god look!” it was...it just made it all worth while. Love theater. Absolutely love theater.

     Bob again: {referring to my recording device} now turn that bloody thing off! (Laugh)

     After our chat I took a couple of pictures of the two, plus the theater and surrounding bustle. I am only including a couple of pictures in a rash attempt to spark your interest and get you inside the auditorium/now home base of Teatro De Los Niños, to see for yourself what’s going on! The first production of the Teatro De Los Niños is “Beauty and the Beast”, it runs from November 18th to December 12th and ticket prices are $8 for concessions (children and jubilados) and $12 for adults. There will be a ticket booth set out on performance nights where only children can reach to purchase tickets. This could very well be the future of children’s culture in Panama. At some point children grow up and become adults. These adults are the same that will be overseeing your care when you are elderly. Don’t you want them to remember how you helped and cared about them when they were children?

     I hope to see you opening night!

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