“The reason I like to see theater is seeing a compelling story on stage,” said actor and director Veronica Reyes.
Reyes, currently living and working in New York City, is the co-director of “Martha Speaks,” a children’s theater production based on the book series by Susan Meddaugh and subsequent PBS television show. It’s the story of a family dog who gains the ability to speak after eating alphabet soup.
While “Martha” may not sound like one of the compelling stories that makes Reyes love going to the theater, the director insists it is.
“It’s not just about a dog who learns how to speak,” said Reyes. “... It changes the relationship between the dog and her best friend and the family.”
Reyes, along with her co-director Nick Salvidar, is with Theatreworks USA, a New York-based touring company specializing in theater for young audiences and their families. “Martha Speaks” makes a stop at the BlackRock Center for the Arts on Saturday afternoon for two performances.
Since 1961, Theatreworks has toured nationwide, presenting plays for young audiences. The company also aims to bring theater to underserved communities that otherwise may not have access to the performing arts.
Every summer, Theatreworks produces shows at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on the Upper West Side. The company gives out 15,000 tickets for the plays free of charge.
“[Theatreworks’] mission is to put up a show in New York City where people from all over can come and see,” said Reyes, who has participated in the free summer theater program for the last two years. “For many of [the children], it’s the first time they’ve seen theater ... It’s an incredible program they have. They keep theater accessible.”
In addition to free summer theater, Theatreworks tours 16 shows each season from its repertoire of 133 plays and musicals. According to Reyes, every play gets a mini-tour at schools in New York City. Finally, the production goes out on a national tour, usually for about six months.
This is the second tour for “Martha Speaks.” For its first run, which wrapped in the fall, Reyes and Salvidar served as associate and assistant director respectively.
Salvidar is a graduate of the University of Central Florida in Orlando where he studied acting. After college, Salvidar was one of the winners of the Student Directing Fellowship at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. It was after meeting several of the professionals involved in the festival that Salvidar decided to pursue directing professionally.
Since then, the 23-year-old said he has directed a wide variety of shows including those aimed at children.
“I’ve had a little bit of experience doing theater for young audiences before,” said Salvidar. “The difference between the adults and the kids: if you’re not being honest with the adult audiences, adults sit there politely. If you’re not being honest with the kids, [they] just start playing with their shoes ...”
“Children won’t buy anything that’s false,” added actor Joel Sparks, who portrays Dad in the show. “They won’t believe anything that’s not real. You have to approach it as being very real.”
Sparks, a College Park native, graduated last year from the University of Michigan’s musical theater program.
According to Sparks, Salvidar and Reyes “Martha Speaks” will keep both young audiences and their parents engaged.
“[Theatreworks] tries to make the show crafted so that the moms and the dads and the teachers are all having a good time,” Salvidar said.
The play, which runs approximately 50 minutes, certainly has a message for its young viewers.
“There are a lot of great lessons,” said Reyes. “This dog has learned how to speak and is really trying to find her voice. She’s trying to find how to speak up for herself and how to stand up ... It speaks to a bullying theme. How do you stand up for yourself?”
While the lessons may appeal to the children, a lot of the comedy is aimed at their parents.
“It is definitely a well-rounded show in that there is a little bit of everything for everyone no matter what age,” Sparks said.
“Martha is written to be this ... comedian,” added Salvidar. “She’s written as a Bette Midler or a Joy Behar [or] Rosie O’Donnell. She’s written as a very smart comedian.”
Besides its humor and its good intentions, “Martha Speaks” has got something else that makes it a true Theatreworks production.
“There’s always a lot of heart,” said Reyes. “That’s what I love about Theatreworks ... It’s the heart of the show.”