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Preschool set are the featured guests at the 31st annual EQT Children's Theater Festival

| Saturday, May 13, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
'Elephant and Piggie’s We Are In a Play!,” by the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences on Tour
“Pulse,” by Teatro al Vacio of Mexico
“The Way Back Home,” by Teater Refleksion of Denmark and Branar Theater of Ireland
“Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters — An African Tale,” by Dallas Children’s Theater
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Elliot Baldwin of Swissvale climbs through a window of a Stick Stuck Chalk hands-on art activity at the EQT Children's Theatre Festival in the Cultural District, Thursday, May 12, 2016. Children can decorate a house with stickers and chalk during the annual event that runs through Sunday.
“Pulse,” by Teatro al Vacio of Mexico
Stuart Dahne
“Simple Gifts” by Cashore Marionettes of the United States
Renee Rosensteel
LEGO Derby at EQT Children's Theater Festival
Renee Rosensteel
The EQT Children's Theater Festival will feature several pop-up performances.

Infants and toddlers typically aren't on the red carpet when Hollywood or New York host the debut of a play, film or musical — but in Pittsburgh, the preschool set will be among the welcomed guests at the U.S. premiere of an interactive production created especially for them.

“Pulse” — a live stage show designed for kids up to age 2 by Teatro al Vacio of Mexico — is one of six international professional performances at the 31st annual EQT Children's Theater Festival May 18 to 21 in the Cultural District in downtown Pittsburgh. The festival also will feature more than 40 free hands-on educational and cultural activities.

“Pulse” is a show in which actors aim to stimulate creativity in infants and toddlers by inviting them to explore and discover various soft textures, shapes, movements and sounds in an inviting and intimate play space.

Adrián Hernández and José Agüero, spokesmen for Teatro al Vacio, say the various ways in which children respond to the spectacle are amazing.

“The reactions and responses of our audience are very different and diverse,” Hernández says. “Some children laugh and get excited about simple things. Adults cannot be sure of what impacts them so much. We can only observe it, let it be, and enjoy it with them.”

The theater company has produced three other works for young children and plans to release another production this year.

Agüero says theater pieces such as “Pulse” offer young audiences “an extraordinary experience, a convivial event, and a spontaneous generation of community, which in that sense makes them partakers of society and the world.”

Pamela Komar, director of theater, music and youth programming and executive director of the Children's Theater Series and Festival at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, says “Pulse” is an excellent introduction to the theater for the youngest patrons.

“Who doesn't like to see babies reacting in a happy way?” she asks. She hopes the unique opportunity for infants will spark their interest in theater as they grow — and reignite interest by adults who accompany them.

Another Children's Theater Festival offering that invites families of all ages to get involved is “We Built This City” by Polyglot Theatre of Melbourne, Australia. The interactive performance features Polyglot artists and thousands of cardboard boxes placed in a large, outdoor construction site, where children can build skyscrapers, tunnels and entire cities to the beat of a rocking soundtrack.

Polyglot Theatre's Artistic Director Sue Giles says “We Built This City” is the happiest project she's ever been part of.

“The idea of it came from my own memories and watching my children playing with a cardboard box in the backyard,” she says. “They'd use it for days and days — hiding in it, moving it around, making it into a cubby. So I thought, what if there were thousands of them? Let's make this simple plaything into a construction site where people can all work alongside each other playing the same way.”

And sometimes, parents have more fun than the kids.

“We'll often see the children and adults making things together and gradually the adults will start to become so deeply obsessed by the task that they forget the kids; and meanwhile, the kids have gone off to create forts and labyrinths and tunnels elsewhere,” she says. “Every now and then the whole thing will topple and fall too — which is a gloriously chaotic moment and people have to start again.”

Giles says the installation presents a variety of fascinating building styles in different venues, many built with families' own cities in mind — in Washington D.C., she watched people build monuments; in Singapore, people created skyscrapers; in Japan, children built shops, because their town had been destroyed by a tsunami and they missed their shops.

“One very special moment for me was being invited into a small house by a tiny girl who had decorated the inside of this space with torn up bits of cardboard and solemnly offered me cardboard tea and a cardboard biscuit,” she says. “Another was seeing two groups of kids who started out arguing over boxes and before I could intervene, shouted ‘Hey, let's work together and build a fort.' ”

Other featured performances include “Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters — An African Tale,” by Dallas Children's Theater; “The Way Back Home,” by Teater Refleksion of Denmark and Branar Theater of Ireland; and “Elephant and Piggie's We Are In a Play!” by the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences on Tour.

Based on the best-selling children's books by Mo Willems, “We Are in a Play” is about the essence of friendship, according to David Kilpatrick, manager, Theater for Young Audiences at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

He says young audiences typically are so excited to see their heroes onstage that they start to engage with Elephant Gerald and Piggie right from the start of the production.

“Toward the end of the show, there is a song called ‘We're in a Play!' that directly addresses the audience and encourages their participation,” Kilpatrick says. “We have toured this show across the country since September and never had trouble getting them to participate; it's often the most fun part.”

Complementing the festival's featured performances will be a variety of hands-on activities, art and music at indoor and outdoor spaces throughout the Cultural District. The festival grounds will include a variety of food options and vendors, visual art programming at local galleries, pop-up green spaces, and free outdoor performances coordinated with Youth Express.

“Our hope is that families will see one or two performances and make a day of it by filling in the time around the performances with activities,” Komar says.

Special activities include Steel City LEGO Users Group's Lego Derby, Citiparks Roving Art Cart and Alphabet Tales and Trail, Disney's “The Little Mermaid” activities by Pittsburgh CLO, Frog Stop Scavenger Hunt, selfie and button-making booths, Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative's Imagination Playground and more.

More than 25,000 people attended last year's EQT Children's Theater Festival, one of only four international children's theater festivals in the nation.

Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Featured performances

The ticketed performances are by six award-winning theater companies from Australia, Mexico, the United States, Denmark and Ireland. Tickets for each of the featured shows is $9, $8 each for two shows; $7 each for three shows, $6 each for four or more. Unless otherwise noted, Children under 2 are free but require a lap pass for entry. They shows include:

• “Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters — An African Tale,” by Dallas Children's Theater, ages 5-11, 65 minutes. When the daughters are on their way to meet the king, who is looking for a wife, they encounter challenges that will test them, in this Cinderella-based tale. Performances: 10:15 a.m. May 18, 11:30 a.m. May 19, 11:45 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. May 20, 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. May 21, August Wilson Center

• “The Way Back Home,” by Teater Refleksion of Denmark and Branar Theater of Ireland, ages 3-8, 40 minutes. When a boy discovers a single-propeller airplane in his closet, he does what any young adventurer would do: he flies into outer space. Performances: 10:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. May 18, 10:15 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. May 19, 10 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. May 20, 10 and 11:45 a.m. May 21, Trust Arts Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Ave.

• “We Built This City,” by Polyglot Theatre of Australia, all ages, 30 minutes. Build the cities of your dreams in this giant cardboard construction site. Performances: 10:15 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. May 18, 10:15 a.m., 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. May 19; 11:45 a.m., 3:15 and 5:30 p.m. May 20; 11:45 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. May 21, 7th Street and Penn Avenue, outdoor interactive installation, with partial tent

• “Elephant and Piggie's We Are In a Play!,” by the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences on Tour, ages 3-8, 60 minutes. Elephant Gerald and Piggie sing and dance their way through pachydermal peril and swiney suspense in this vaudevillian romp of a musical based on Mo Willems' best-selling children's books. Performances: 10:15 a.m. May 18 and 19, 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. May 20, 11:45 a.m. May 21, Byham Theater

• “Simple Gifts” by Cashore Marionettes of the United States, ages 7 and up, 60 minutes. Experience a series of touching and poignant scenes from everyday life told through marionettes. No children under 3 permitted and no lap passes issued. Performances: 12:15 p.m. May 19, 12:15 and 6 p.m. May 20, 2:45 and 4:30 p.m. May 21, Trust Arts Education Center

• “Pulse,” by Teatro al Vacio of Mexico, ages 0-2, 30 minutes. U.S. premiere of “Pulse,” which uses textures and lively games to invite infants and toddlers into a safe, positive and friendly environment that will stimulate their sense of creativity. All children and adults need a paid ticket. Performances: 11:30 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. May 18, 10:15 and 11:30 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. May 19; 10 and 11:45 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. May 20; 10 and 11:45 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. May 21, Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave.

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