‘Wild Rumpus at the Jungle’

Bookstore-theater partnership upgrades storytime

Cut within the adult-sized front door to Linden Hills’ Wild Rumpus children’s bookstore, 2727 W. 43rd St., is another, petite-sized door, its knob within easy reach of the average 4-year-old’s arm.

Now the bookstore is collaborating with a local venue to bring such a kid-welcoming atmosphere, and children’s books, to the theater.

Each Saturday this month, "Wild Rumpus at the Jungle" will present a souped-up theatrical version of story-time. Kids 4 and up are invited to come to the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., and listen to one animated librarian, Mrs. Peterson, and her piano-playing next-door neighbor bring five stories, all about being different, to life.

Forget sitting cross-legged on cushions on the public library floor, craning to see the pictures. Here, young ones sit in cushy playhouse seats as the illustrations appear on a big screen above the not-quite-frumpy, charismatic Mrs. Peterson.

But like a real librarian, Ms. Peterson, played by veteran Children’s Theatre Company member and Whittier resident Wendy Lehr, is bound to her seat. This, she says, is her "biggest challenge . . .. I keep wanting to jump up and walk around. But I do sit still so the children can look at the pictures and hear my voice."

Lehr, reading books chosen by Wild Rumpus owner Collette Morgan, uses her voice to entrance her audience. In the last series of readings in March, Lehr read stories about relationships between pets and their human owners: "A Story For Bear" by Dennis Haseley and Jim Lamarche, "The Nightingale" by Hans Christian Anderson, and "The Opera Cat" by Tess Weaver. For an hour, dozens of 4-11 year-olds sat enwrapped in her engaging voice and the gentle music of her next-door neighbor, a.k.a. Loring Park’s Roberta Carlson.

But the audience’s mood is far from flat. Each group, says Lehr, reacts differently to the same set of stories. In some groups, the kids will howl over the silly story about an opera-singing cat while, on a different Saturday, another audience responds more strongly to Andersen’s sadder tale about the emperor who tried to cage a nightingale.

"[During one reading] there was so much tension in the room. ‘Nightingale’ was the last and the longest story; I was worried it was too long, but they paid rapt attention," says Lehr.

Of course, the program was developed in part to encourage reading, but it also seeks to make the theatre a more comfortable place for children. One of the main reasons Lehr enjoys her role in the program is that "the fourth wall [between the actors and the audience] doesn’t exist. As an actor, you can be so much more aware of the audience."

At the beginning of each story-time, Mrs. Peterson gets to know her audience by asking a few questions. In March, she asked audience members what types of pets they have. At least a dozen hands flew straight in the air. Mrs. Peterson allowed several children to pipe in about their cats, dogs and guinea pigs, and then moved on.

She easily builds rapport with the children; they seem to love telling this talkative lady all about themselves — both off- and on-stage.

"After one show, a young girl tugged at my skirt and said, ‘You didn’t call on me, but I have a cat,’" recalled Lehr.

The actor carefully balances her roles as engaging grandmother and schoolteacher. "I walk a tightrope between wanting the children to feel included … while needing to contain the energy. Sometimes, she said, Mrs. Peterson has to say ‘Well now children, let’s settle down.’"

With decades of local performance experience under her belt, Lehr is no stranger to multi-tasking. She’s worked as an actress, director, choreographer, teacher and, now, a storyteller.

"In these times you need to be able to do more than one thing to stay around," she explained.

The warmth exuded by Mrs. Peterson does not dissipate when Lehr removes her wig and dress. Although she has performed in many plays intended for your standard adult audience, she’s drawn back to children and education. After leaving the Children’s Theater Company, Lehr returned as an administrator and director of their education program. Now, after wrapping up the role of Mary Stuart in a Park Square Theater production, she’s back to working with children and families.

While no one has thought of the Jungle Theater as a drop-off daycare, parents don’t always agree on how their children should behave. Differences in parenting styles can all too easily disrupt the experience of the group.

"It’s hard to hear with a 1- or 2-year-old running up the stairs and talking. Not to mention that the poor reader has to keep speaking louder and louder," said Lehr.

Though they didn’t hear complaints from audience members, the Jungle plans to nip this problem in the bud by hanging larger signs and increasing the number of ushers on-hand for this month’s performances. The signs and ushers will encourage parents to remove their youngest children, those unable to remain quiet or still, to lounge outside of the theater’s main room.

"Parents think they can just pack up the 1-2 year-old to come along. It’s kind of hard to get across that a child under four may not be able to go the distance of an hour-long storytelling program," said Lehr.

Competing beliefs about child behavior aside, the issue shouldn’t hamper the popularity of this afternoon alternative to the movies.

Books about being different — from having a unique name to the difficulties of being a dwarf or a "sissy" — will be read each Saturday this month at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Tickets are $5 per person. 822-7063.