Puppets, Storytellers and Snowflake

Performances to Grow on works to keep the magic of performing arts in local schools

By Saundra Sorenson

Bessie from The Vagabond Puppets will visit Ventura County in 2007.


ou could say that Performances to Grow On started with a bear.

Or, rather, it started with a Canadian circus performer dressed in a very convincing bear costume thumbing a ride from a young Brian Bemel in Big Sur.

It’s a testament to Bemel’s instincts that he knew, simply from offering “Billy” a ride, that he had just tapped into a key educational tool. When Billy made a guest appearance in Bemel’s elementary classroom the following Monday, the bear’s storytelling held the students’ attention and proved to Bemel that the relationship between the arts and education was not only symbiotic, but integral.

“That’s how I got started with it,” Bemel remembers, “as a teacher finding the arts myself. Then I started bringing in a lot of professional performers in all the different disciplines. I got involved with the arts that way.”

While teaching, he adapted books into plays for the children to perform. “I just found that it really connected to the kids and it was a great way to integrate all the things we were studying into performance.”

When he pursued a master’s degree, it was in confluent education, and his thesis focused on integrating curriculum into the performing arts. This wasn’t a fleeting trend of the experimental ’60s, he adds: currently, there exists a state curriculum on visual and performing arts standards.

Still, his early career in the 1960s was set against the backdrop of a tumultuous political climate in the country. “There was kind of a revolution in education going on,” he remembers. “It was just more open at the time, there was a movement at the time of open classroom or organic classroom … it was a very live time for innovation.”

Now, he notes that the current emphasis on testing in the classroom often comes at the cost of creativity. “The arts have really kind of taken a back seat,” he observes, explaining that with 22 years’ experience as a teacher and 11 years’ experience working for the county, often coordinating performing arts programs in the schools, he felt the budget cuts harshly when arts programs were cut.

That’s where the nonprofit Performances to Grow On came in.

PTGO arranges school assembly programs that feature all manner of performance: music, dance, puppetry and storytelling. Although the shows don’t come free — generally the Parent Teacher Association puts together the financing — Bemel spends much of his time grant-writing. Donations from the community can also directly fund specific shows.

As a result, PTGO serves approximately 20,000 students over the year through its performances at the Thousand Oaks Civics Arts Plaza and the Lobero Theater. By organizing 500 school assemblies annually with an average audience of 300, nearly 150,000 students are exposed to these performances.

Naturally, the assembly performances are consistent with educational standards. “They’re multicultural,” Bemel says. “They represent these different disciplines. And they’re designed to enhance the curriculum.”

PTGO is also responsible for the yearly Storytelling Festival in Ojai, a three-day event that welcomes storytellers from all over the world and draws in an audience of about 4,000 in total.

Bemel, officially retired from the county last year but still head of PTGO, has found his job to consist largely of traveling and putting the feelers out for new, inspiring acts. PTGO employs one full-time employee, four part-time employees and scores of volunteers, allowing Bemel to attend the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee every year and to be present at several booking conferences. He has also spent more than a couple summers as a guest of Canada for summer performance festivals in the Great White North.

He books plenty of local talent, too, including Boxtails, a Santa Barbara troupe that draws on traditions of storytelling, live music and mask performance. They are slated to tour local schools next year with a striking production of The Odyssey, a creative interpretation of an epic that is required reading in most public middle or high schools.

Off campus, Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara audiences can look forward to productions like Snowflake, a charming pantomime inspired by a homeless man that performer Gayle Lajoye knew in Michigan. In little over an hour, Lajoye explores his quirky, lush junkyard surroundings.

“He’s able to transform all these discarded objects into objects of joy with his imagination,” explains Bemel. “I’ve had friends tell me it’s the most beautiful family piece they’ve ever seen.”

Lajoye has performed Snowflake all over the world. No dialogue means no language barrier, which lends the show a universality.

“It’s really kind of ageless,” Bemel states, “because there’s no speaking in it. It can play to very young children, and there’s a level to it that appeals to adults, too.”

Perhaps Lajoye’s performance of The Nutcracker on skis might have something to do with the show’s mass appeal?

And although Bemel has put his focus mainly on the school-aged audience, he hasn’t neglected the adults. This year, he has arranged Fresh Roasted Concerts, four performances highlighting engaging musicians.

“We try to find performers that really relate to the audience because my feeling is, if they just play music, you might as well just get a CD. What I think we try to do is we try to create performances that relate to the audience and stimulate the audience too, and get people talking,” he says.

The lineup appeals to a variety of tastes with its themes of Blues Blend, Folk Flavor, African Aroma and Full in Body.

Bemel’s attempts do not go unappreciated in the community. Local mother Dale Applebaum, who discovered the Ventura County-based program while she was still living in Studio City, began subscribing to its performance seasons despite the considerable commute for her family. “I still have yet to find anything that comes close to PTGO in terms of the caliber of shows and the variety for shows that are appropriate for children,” she says.

When she speaks of PTGO performances, the word “spellbound” comes up often to describe the reactions of both school-aged and adult audiences.

Now a resident of Thousand Oaks, Applebaum credits the performing arts with fostering a child’s imagination, sense of identity and freedom of expression, and in that vein feels that Bemel’s bold lineup — specifically of male tap dancers and street dancers — inspired her son to pursue an acting hobby. She was amazed when her 9-year-old auditioned for Meadows Elementary’s production of the musical Wicked last year.

Ultimately, Applebaum joined the PTGO board, and was delighted when the principal of her children’s school decided to participate in a scrip-style program that gives 15 percent of PTGO ticket sales back to the school.

“I think Thousand Oaks in particular tends to be very insular,” Applebaum observes. She’s found the ticket-sale program to be an effective way to promote the arts to local families, and has seen many of her children’s classmates attend PTGO performances and meet with performers afterward.

Applebaum predicts that her two children will continue to pursue the performing arts through school, and possibly beyond. Although Bemel would no doubt be thrilled at the impact his program has had on the area youth, molding future actors and dancers isn’t his express aim.

“I think it’s inspiring for kids,” he considers, “even though they may not become an artist themselves, just to see beauty expressed.”

“The performing arts are an exciting way for humans to express joy of life. It’s very experiential, which is why people go to movies or go to the theater.”


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