Not Just for Kids: A Year With Frog And Toad at Carousel Theatre

Going "cookie for cookies!" - Todd Talbot, Josue Laboucane. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Every once in a while I am lucky enough to see a production that I find so in every way delightful that even the act of writing or telling other people about it is delightful too. This is how I feel about Carousel Theatre’s A Year With Frog And Toad, playing at the Waterfront Theatre until April 8.

I have been to Carousel productions before (The Wizard of Oz and Aesop’s Fables), and I’ve always been a young-at-heart-believes-in-fairies person who is interested in and enjoys stories for younger audiences, be it through theatre, film, or literature. My past experiences with Carousel have been great.

But A Year With Frog And Toad really takes the cake. The theatrical experience begins, as it seems it always does at a Carousel production, with entering the theatre and seeing an absolutely beautiful set onstage, waiting, like us, for the magic to begin. Set designer Heidi Wilkinson created two picture-perfect homes for Frog and Toad, outside and in, and the effect this set has on everyone, not just the kids in the audience, is palpable.

Todd Talbot, Josue Laboucane. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

What follows is 60 minutes (that’s right, it’s short and sweet!) of pure delight. I am able to look at this show the way I look at a show meant for adult audiences because it is just that tight. The cues are tight, the funny bits (and the show is very funny) are perfectly-timed, and the costumes (designed by Yulia Shtern) are exactly what they ought to be down to the last dapper polka-dot (for Frog) and floppy mitten (for Toad, of course, for sledding!). The show is delivered by a seamless and talented ensemble of five performers who sang, danced, croaked, squeaked and chirped their way right into my affections in the first number and had me hanging on their string right until the finale.

But my heart, of course, goes to the dandy and particular Frog (Todd Talbot) and his slightly more disgruntled, ruffled, but no less loving best friend Toad (Josue Laboucane). To watch Toad try to coax his flowers into growing is to watch one of the sweetest and most genuine theatrical moments I have seen in YA theatre. The friendship of Frog and Toad, complete with swimsuit issues, too many cookies, and plans for rescue, feels sincere and tremendously touching. A Year With Frog and Toad is, quite simply, a year in the life of two best friends, with all the humour and heart that goes with it (I must admit I cried, I tried hard not to, because I was sitting next to a stranger, but I couldn’t help it).

In short, Carousel’s production of A Year With Frog And Toad is not just a show for kids, and it is not just on its technical and theatrical merits that adults will find entertainment and joy. Many artists I know dislike YA theatre in general because they feel it “talks down” to its audience. A Year With Frog and Toad does nothing of the sort. The fun and humour in this production are universal. And so is friendship.

Which is the point, I think. Aside from the tap-dancing forest creatures and the gorgeous set, the real story of A Year With Frog And Toad is one of friendship. Kids will love the show because it is beautiful and magical and fun. Adults will connect with the show for all of these reasons of course, but also because they’ve (sadly) had enough knocks in life to know how important and incredibly special a good friend really is.

Rebecca Talbot, Todd Talbot. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

A Year With Frog and Toad will run until April 8 at the Waterfront Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online on the Carousel Theatre website, or by calling the Carousel box office at 604-685-6217.

Disclosure: My ticket to A Year With Frog And Toad was arranged and provided by Jessie van Rijn, General Manager for Carousel Theatre. I remain the sole author of the content on

Aesop’s Fables at Carousel Theatre

Mishelle Cutler and Kayvon Kelly, photo by Tim Matheson

By now, anyone who has passed through a Canadian elementary school is familiar with Aesop and his fables. We know by now that slow and steady wins the race (Tortoise and the Hare) that warmth is stronger than force (The Sun and the North Wind) and that sometimes even those who seem weaker than you can prove helpful in a sticky situation (The Lion and the Mouse). What we don’t know, or may have forgotten, is the magic and opportunity for learning that comes with seeing children engage with these tried and true morals for the first time.

It was this spark of brand new engagement that I was able to experience on Saturday, when I attended Carousel Theatre for Young People’s opening of their production of Aesop’s Fables, scripted by Mike Kenny. Joining me at the Waterfront Theatre once again was a friend and former mentor of mine, and her five-year-old daughter, my Little Guest (LG).

Those of you who have read my post inspired by watching Carousel Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz may remember that my LG got a little scared being close to the stage and did need to spend a short time in the lobby while the Witch was onstage. Jessie van Rijn, General Manager of Carousel Theatre, certainly did remember as she confirmed with us at the box office that our tickets this time were farther back and also right on the aisle, for the possibility of a quick exit. I’m grateful to Jessie for providing us with these seats but also delighted to report that LG remained happily in the house through the entire performance and has given her approval for seeing more theatre in the future.

Carousel’s production of Aesop’s Fables is certainly for kids. The humour, music, and “audience participation” moments are directed towards them. Judging by the reactions of the children in the audience, these moments were received with great enthusiasm by the young (and young at heart) who were happy to puff up their cheeks, fluff up their feathers, make silly sounds, and helpfully point out where sneaky animals like wolves and mice may be hiding. I should also point out that the house was almost consistently filled with laughter, which is always a good sign that kids are enjoying themselves.

Melissa Oei, photo by Tim Matheson

Though many of the moments in the production are not geared towards the adult members of the audience, there is much for us to appreciate: great music (much of it played live by members of the cast), strong (and often funny) physical performances by cast members, and (my personal favourite), an absolutely enchanting set designed by Drew Facey. Facey’s set is simple, but somehow elaborate at the same time, and when coupled with Darren Boquist’s elegant but not intrusive lighting, Aesop’s Fables is full of visual whimsy.

After the show, the actors returned to the stage to take questions from the children in the audience. Every question was answered, whether it be a question about how an effect works, where the sound comes from, who made what, how long the actors rehearsed, or even a request to explain the fables themselves. I think this chance to have questions answered is a vital part of the show, removing it from a magical, untouchable “onstage” world and introducing children to the ways in which stories are told, problems are solved, and things are made.

So far, when writing about my experiences with Carousel Theatre, it has been helpful to refer to my large unwieldy copy of the Anthology of Children’s Literature (Ed. Edna Johnson, Evelyn R. Sickels, Frances Clarke Sayers, 1959) which I picked up at the SFU United Way book sale a couple of years ago. About fables, the Anthology has this to say:

…while children shun moralizing they are drawn to morality. The drama of the fable, the animal characters, and the quick flash of its single illustration of a truth–these hold the attention of children. Fables are like small, bright pebbles picked up from the shore, stored in the pocket as reminders of past experience, and held in the mind when needed.

I remember my own introduction to fables very clearly. We had a small picture book of them at home, and although I can’t remember every fable that was in the book, I remember the colours in the illustrations, the image of a thirsty crow drinking the water he earned through his cleverness, and the voice of my dad explaining the stories to us and what the morals meant. Fables are as familiar to us as fairy tales, and oftentimes, a lot more useful. The experience of being introduced to them for the first time can be a very rich memory later on.


Mike Stack, Mishelle Cuttler, Melissa Oei, and Kayvon Kelly, photo by Tim Matheson

Aesop’s Fables runs at the Waterfront Theatre until February 26. For the times of public performances, please see Carousel’s Public Calendar on their website. Tickets can be purchased online on Carousel’s Box Office page or by calling 604-685-6217.

Carousel’s season this year is based on literary classics, so if you’re interested, I believe the next production is A Year With Frog and Toad.

My ticket, as well as the tickets of my guests, were provided for me by Carousel Theatre. I was not asked to write a review for this performance, and I remain solely responsible for my content, regarding this production or any other.

Children and the Arts: The conversation begins

Damon Calderwood and Robyn Wallis, Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Last Saturday I was invited by Jessie van Rijn, General Manager for Carousel Theatre for Young People, to a Bloggers’ Night at Carousel Theatre’s holiday production of The Wizard of Oz at Waterfront Theatre. While the bloggers in attendance were invited to tweet and live blog before and after the performance and during the intermission, Jessie was careful to stress both in her invitation and at the event itself that Carousel did not require or expect us to do so.

What Jessie did want to do by inviting bloggers to a Carousel production was to start a conversation about the role of the arts (and in Carousel’s case, specifically theatre) in the development of children and young people. Even without Jessie’s kind invitation to watch the stage version of my childhood favourite film (the MGM classic starring Judy Garland), I am more than happy to do so.

I know without a doubt the invaluable effect images, films, books, theatre, music, and dance had on my imaginative life and on my creativity growing up. From having the ending of Romeo & Juliet explained to me by my mother (after which I wondered why the heck anyone would bother writing a story that ended like that) to realizing after a conversation with my dad that I’d perhaps sided with the wrong character (apparently, the Phantom of the Opera was not a very nice man), the art I was exposed to led me to question what I saw, to hunger for explanation, and to create my own possibilities and versions of events when the explanation didn’t suit me (a creative act and one that the most lauded adult innovators perform constantly). I know that the cultural activities I was exposed to as a child and as a teenager shaped my own ambitions regarding becoming an artist and a writer.

Whether or not a child grows up to become an artist themselves, any activity that inspires and nurtures creativity (such as a trip to the theatre or the ballet) will be beneficial to them and to the world they will inherit. Celebrated 21st-century figures such as Steve Jobs were not only technically skilled–they were also incredibly creative. Terms like “innovative” and “thinking outside the box” get thrown around a lot nowadays as desirable traits for the work world of today, but what everyone really means is creativity, the ability to break from an established pattern and make something new, even if it’s simply something old viewed in a new way.

Creativity is not only useful in the workplace–it is also necessary for developing life and coping skills. Far from the stereotype of the miserable suicidal artist, reinforced by the high profile suicides of artists such as Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh, a faculty for creativity is NOT a precursor to misery and suicidal ideation as creative people are better able to envision alternative solutions to the unhappy circumstances they face, and to find an outlet for the emotional and mental distress they may be feeling. The more choices you can envision for yourself, the less likely you are to find yourself powerless and trapped by your circumstances.

If you are still wondering why it is important to nurture children’s imaginations, my favourite answer is simply because children have them. Kids have a rich image life and as they begin to learn about the world they are exposed to new fears and wonders. I can think of no better example of this than the experiences of the five-year-old guest I brought with me to The Wizard of Oz (along with her mother, a friend of mine). Today I’ll call her LG (for Little Guest). LG is an outgoing and sassy little girl, who wanted to be the one to buy her Mentos from the lobby concession BY HERSELF and who chatted freely before the show even though she hasn’t seen me since she was three.

Meghan Anderssen, Photo credit: Tim Matheson

When we sat down in our second row seats (thanks Jessie!) and we saw how close to the stage we were, LG became a little apprehensive about her proximity to the Wicked Witch, and then she became downright terrified and asked to go home. My friend (her mom) had a chat with LG in the lobby about what she was afraid of and Jessie at Carousel not only helped by describing what would happen in the show to LG (explaining that in this production the Witch is more funny than scary) but was also able to re-seat us near the back of the theatre where we could still see and hear everything perfectly well (there’s not a bad seat in the Waterfront) and where LG could have a few rows of audience between her and any onstage witchiness.

After the show, the children in the audience were invited to climb onto the stage with Jessie and take a look at the sets and props used, meet the cast members, and ask questions about how the play worked. I think understanding how the images and characters that scared her are created helped smooth over LG’s initial fears and in the car afterwords she announced proudly that though she was “a little scared at first” she was glad she went and that she liked Glinda and that Jessie explained to her how the magical snow was able to defeat the Witch’s poisonous poppies.

The point I am trying to make with this heart warming little story, besides the fact that Jessie van Rijn and Carousel Theatre are good with kids, is that whether we encourage it or not children will imagine. No one told LG to think about the Wicked Witch, or to imagine that the Witch could possibly harm her, but LG was frightened anyways. What nurturing creativity does is provide children with weapons to combat their imagined fears (in LG’s case, Glinda and some magical snow did the trick).

The bright side of children’s ability to imagine that horrors lurk in the closet or under their bed is their ability to imagine that the world around them, while dark and strange sometimes, is also full of wonder and light. My little sister’s imagination once plagued her with night terrors, but her imagination was also able to convince her that the dream catcher my parents hung above her bed would stop them, and so it did. The same mind that believes in the Bogeyman and ghosts is also able to believe in Santa Claus and fairies. Children will imagine whether we tell them to or not–why would we not want to provide their imaginations with images and experiences that make them feel happy, inspired, and powerful?

I once came across a quote from Lewis Mumford (American historian, philosopher, cultural critic, and father) which I have loved ever since for eloquently framing my feelings on this issue of encouraging (or discouraging) imagination in children:

In repressing this life of fantasy and subordinating it to our own practical interests, we perhaps…gave the demonic a free hand without conjuring up any angelic powers to fight on the other side. We did not get rid of the dragon: we only banished St. George

                -Lewis Mumford, Green Memories

So there you have it folks. Give your kids something lasting this Christmas, something that will encourage their creativity, stimulate their imaginations, and arm them against their fears. Give them a St. George, or a Glinda the Good Witch, or even just a fun evening at the theatre or with a great book.

For me, this is what has lasted. This is what I remember and treasure after my old toys have been boxed up or garage-saled or forgotten. My parents gave me as much imagination and creativity as they could and it’s those gifts I am continually thankful for.

Robyn Wallis, Darren Burkett, Mike Stack, and Josue Laboucane, Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Full disclosure: I do not have children of my own. But I was a child once, and I have a good memory. I also have teacher parents, teacher neighbours, little cousins, TC’s cousins, friends with kids, babysitting experience, and an obsession with YA fiction.

My ticket to The Wizard of Oz, as well as the tickets of LG and her mother, were provided by Carousel Theatre for their Bloggers’ Night event. I was not asked to review or promote the show.

Carousel Theatre’s current season is based on literary classics. For more information about its productions and what Carousel does,  please visit their website.