“Are you here for a season or reason?” the question is thrown to 200 kids ranging in age from 6 to 16 years. Some are chomping trail bars, others fidgeting with the energy of the universe, the rest eager to begin their summer at the theater camp in Middlesex County College , New Jersey. It’s the question Michael Taubenslag’s father well known theater director Elliott Taubenslag posed to him thirty years ago and it still helps Michael stay true north as director of children theater . An hour later I watch Aladdin and am transported to a world of sand dunes and green minarets, an evil spouting Jafar desperate to possess the bewitched lamp, a street smart Aladdin , an ethereal Jasmine and a happy righteous genie accompanied by a swarm of adorable genies weak in power but strong in intent. The kids are now inside the story enacting the lyrics and the mood, twirl in flouncy gold and blue costumes to end to thundering applause. Their eyes shine with a sense of we did it.
“That’s what theater is supposed to do” declares Michael as he settles into a chat with me at the theater hall. “It makes you think on your feet and makes the kids feel worthy .” Michael believes in bringing art into education and feels every child and adult must at some time enroll into theater as performing helps overcome the rumblings of a quivering but aspiring heart . Colorful staging , a multi cultural cast, popular tales and audience participation ensure that adults are never bored. “My father’s big formula is that you have to make the shows very entertaining for the adults as well , even though it’s for kids. ” The Star Ledger once wrote “Disney’s show costs $75, six bucks gets you into Taubenslag’s, which will give your child $75 worth of pleasure.”
Taubenslag Productions offers an outstanding opportunity for all children to participate in a top notch production that is energetic and full of life while building their individual self-esteem. ( John A. Ravally Superintendent of School Point Pleasant Beach School District )
In one short week you bring out the talent , the enthusiasm and the joy of drama in all types of students. The audience is always delighted by the end result. ( Sister Pat Principal St. Anthony School)
That everyone matters, because even the 55th dwarf can get a laugh. (Gloria G)
The children’s theater group was founded In 1964 by Elliott Taubenslag, a drama and English teacher. He produced his first show Cindrella off Broadway in New York city . When first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came with her children to see the show the flashbulbs followed. “Mrs. Kennedy coming to the theater was our big break,” reflects Michael . He first got onto stage at age 3 carried by one of the performers and never wanted to get off. The company was pretty much a family affair . In the play Peter Pan his father played Captain Hook, his mom worked the box office, his sister played Wendy , his brother Jonathan and well Michael played little Michael. Most of the scripts have been written and “tempered” by his father and Michael. Elliott was honored in 2010 for his 50 years of service to theater arts in East Brunswick where a street was named after him —“Elliott Taubenslag Way”.
The Magic of theater
Over a period of eleven years the company shifted their presence from New York to do shows at Middlesex County College New Jersey . In 1988 Taubenslag Productions won the prestigious Dorothy Arts and Mullen award for Best Children’s Program in the United States of America. Soon the company was flooded by calls from schools and parents requesting them to bring their program to schools and thus was born THEATER WEEK — an educational theatrical program for schools designed to build kid’s self confidence and self esteem. Michael himself produces, writes, directs, works the curtains , teaches songs and gives cues. ”Everyone has to do everything, that’s the only way for theater to survive,” he believes. The company puts up a complete musical production in 5 days flat. There can be 5 or 300 kids and everyone will play a part. If anyone drops a line Michael pops up on stage and encourages them to make up a new line.
What Michael does best is to churn the energy onstage. So everyone feeds off every ones energy . The shy kids at the back row watching the front runners hog the light begin to work on their lyrics and inch closer to the arc lights . And sneaky dialogues like “The Cyclops is so smart he works for the police department as a Private Eye” and ” I am a big one-eyed boy and I’ve got my eye on you ” keep the gurgles coming. I ask Michael what are the changes they have had to adopt over the years and he answers that there are no longer any evil stepmothers because many children have stepmothers. The other change is no weapons are used onstage , not even make believe swords so characters lash against each other with a volley of words and pool noodles. Over the years they have received countless appreciative letters from parents and teachers.
The End that prompts a beginning
Elliott passed away in 2018 and in His memorial “A Life Well Lived” Michael mentioned that as a child he was irritated being called little Elliott , today he considers it a badge of honor. In a way Michael’s entire life has been an ode to his father . He tells me about his father’s solid marriage and how it took him twice to find that kind of love and companionship. In 1988 Elliott suffered a heart attack and Michael took over the reins. He nurtured his own ambitions to become a Broadway director but knew if he did not don the mantle it would be the end of the way . And since that day Michael has discovered a wonderful world at his doorstep by “trying to make a difference to children’s (and their family’s) life through the medium of theater .”
Michael believes that kids as actors and as audience learn focus while belonging to a scene. He believes theater encourages children to interact that helps in community building through patience and respect for other’s roles. It’s this quest to make life meaningful that prompts Michael to on board a kid with cerebral palsy or to put up a show with brain injured adults . Several young adults have learnt at their knees then gone onto to further their careers on Broadway, Hollywood and other entertainment avenues. “The worst thing I can ever do is to let a kid slide sby , unnoticed” , he states . In the words of a theater fan “they built a community: one committed to crafting lifelong loves of theater; committed to nurturing the sense of self for so many kids; and committed to teaching teamwork, communication and the importance of fun.” I bid good bye to a world of ships and pirates , princesses and leering men , forest fairies and gullible village folk. Michael’s voice booms over the microphone , “Say it to the balcony folks, remember when you try your best –you can do anything .”