Arizona Artbeat: Childsplay founder David Saar

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Childsplay is a Tempe troupe that specializes in theater for kids and families, and the founder of the organization, David Saar, is retiring after 39 years. We’ll talk to Saar as he looks back at his career in theater geared toward kids.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of Arizona Artbeat focuses on the founder of Childsplay, a Tempe theater troupe that specializes in productions for kids and families. The founder of Childsplay, David Saar, is retiring after 39 years at the helm. And we welcome David Saar to "Arizona Horizon." Good to see you again.

David Saar: Nice to see you, thanks for having me.

Ted Simons: Retiring after 39 years!

David Saar: 40 seemed excessive. [ Laughs ]

Ted Simons: You've already been there for 39 years, why are you retiring?

David Saar: I'm looking forward to another chapter of life. Other explorations in theater, not in theater. I've been collecting books for the last five years, I'm going to start reading things other than scripts.

Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting?

David Saar: A whole other opportunity.

Ted Simons: Does it feel like it's time?

David Saar: It feels like Childsplay is in a very good place. We've done a really good job of arranging the succession. We hired from within the ensemble and have been spending really a year planning this out, working with the board, working with the community, so I leave Childsplay in very good hands.

Ted Simons: So there's no -- there was no ruckus involved, there was no night of long knives?

David Saar: Not much drama at all. My next discovery process is to figure out what the heck an artistic director emeritus is. [ Laughs ] I'm taking it to mean whatever I want to do and not what I don't want to do.

Ted Simons: I think that will work on your end. When you started Childsplay, what was the goal? Why did you do it?

David Saar: To make a play. I didn't start out to make an organization. I started out to make a play and did it by gathering a group of artists together. The process of creating material, new material for kids, was so rewarding that we kept on doing it.

Ted Simons: Go ahead, please.

David Saar: I had a day job. This was afternoon and evenings in summers but eventually, we began to work in schools and toured the schools throughout, I had a long gig with the county center that kicked off the company. And the rest is history.

Ted Simons: Were you always a theater person?

David Saar: Yes, yes. For about oh, eight weeks by freshman year of college I was going to become a dentist but then I got cast in 12th night and that was it.

Ted Simons: Caught the bug.

Ted Simons: So I want to go back to the earlier years. Did you think something was missing from children's theater?

David Saar: Yeah. Back then, theater for young audiences really didn't have a very good reputation either for itself or a lot of material that talked down to kids, recycled fairytales, stories that the parents had seen. It was just -- kids are capable of understanding and processing much more complex issues than we often give them credit for and that's one of the reasons I wanted to make theater for them. They're the most challenging audience around because they will tell you if they don't like it. They won't sit politely and go to sleep. They will let you know.

Ted Simons: We have some photographs of some of the productions in the past and as we look these over I'm curious when you knew that this was going to work, not only this was going to work, this was going to be your life?

David Saar: I -- I guess I do that with every new play that I start working on. It's an ongoing discovery. I'm still learning. And I will continue to still learn about kids and what they like. The theater that we're creating now has to change because the kids are changing, living in a world that we really can't describe to them. All we can do is provide them with stories that hopefully will help them.

Ted Simons: And is this to rock the vote?

David Saar: Rock the president. That was a national tour. Starts touring across the nation in September and closes down inauguration day.

Ted Simons: My goodness. Now, you also wrote a play years ago that got a lot of attention, the yellow boat, and this is a personal thing for you. And talk to us; give us a little brief synopsis of the play and why you wrote it.

David Saar: It's the story of our son, Benjamin, who was born and at the age of six months, diagnosed with hemophilia. He contracted the aids virus when he was six and passed away when he was eight. That sounds like a real -- not a thing to write a play about but what I discovered in the process with Benjamin is that he exhibited an understanding and a wisdom about his situation that really helped Sonya and myself deal with it and deal with him. When I started researching this, he was an artist, and he chronicled his whole life by his drawings. So that's where I started the writing. But when I also did research I discovered he was extraordinary as an artist but in this understanding and knowledge, many kids exhibit that in these situations. So I just said okay, we've got to recognize and celebrate this in young people, not just in dire crisis, end of life times.

Ted Simons: Interesting. First performed in 1993, still performed?

David Saar: It's been done all over the world and still is being done.

Ted Simons: Is it tough for you to see even now?

David Saar: No, no. Because I spent two and a half years writing it and moving it from experience to a play. It's its own thing, it's not a documentary, it's its own life and its own thing and some of it is made up and some of is right straight out of life but the yellow boat, he's out there still teaching.

Ted Simons: I'll bet he is.

David Saar: Fabulous.

Ted Simons: And you're going to be out there I would imagine, you've got a success, real quickly.

David Saar: Duane Hartford, playwright, actor, and he's been with the company for over 20 years. We joke and say getting hired by Childsplay is not a lifetime sentence but it might be. So Duane's there, jenny Miller is there, I'm leaving the company, Steve Martin, I'm leaving the company in the most capable hands I possibly could.

Ted Simons: 30 seconds left. How do you want to see Childsplay grow after you've left?

David Saar: I want it to keep working to achieve its mission, which is to create strikingly original theater for young people. That's what it will do.

Ted Simons: That's what it has done and congratulations on a remarkable career.

David Saar: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Thank you so much for being here.

David Saar: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Tuesday on "Arizona Horizon," we'll have the results of an annual assessment on the condition of the state's children. And we'll have a debate on dark money in politics. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

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