As you probably know, one of my favorite places is Children's Fairyland in Oakland. It's an oasis of gentleness, scaled to the size of a small child and guided by the principle established back in 1950 by its co-founders, William Penn Mott and Arthur Navlet: "No straight lines and a surprise around every corner."
I love the animals, who live far beyond their normal life spans because of the TLC they get. I love the lack of conventional "rides." I love the storytellers and the puppet shows and Willie the Whale.
But most of all, I love the Children's Theatre Program, which selects 30 kids ages 8 to 10 each year and turns them into accomplished performers. The kids gain theater skills in acting, improvisation, singing and dance, as well as life skills like teamwork, leadership, cultural understanding and confidence. And they have a ton of fun in the process.
This year, they're going to perform "Ozma Of Oz" (the first Oz story Fairyland has done in more than a decade), a Latin American story called "Bear Print" and another tale yet to be determined.
And that's just the beginning. They also serve as Fairyland's ambassadors to the outside world. Playing their storybook characters, they greet visitors to the park ("Hi. I'm Snow White. Welcome to Fairyland.") and represent Fairyland at public events, including the Piedmont July 4th Parade and the Oakland Holiday Parade.
But to me, their most important role is as mentors and role models for the younger kids who visit the park. They paint the little ones' faces, read to them, assist them with arts and crafts and hold their hands and help them find their parents if they get lost.
They also caution the little tykes not to cross the Magic Pink Line in front of the puppet stage because if they cross it, the puppets will get scared and run off the stage. (Cynics might say the real reason is that if you get too close, you can see the strings.)
I once saw a Fairyland Personality painting a daisy on a little girl's cheek, and the adoration on the younger child's face said it all: She was stunned that a big kid was being so kind to her. And it was clear that what she wanted more than anything else in the world was to be the same way when she became a big kid herself.
Auditions for the 2014 class of Fairyland Personalities will take place January 25 and 26. You can start the ball rolling by registering online (or downloading a faxable PDF) at fairyland.org and clicking on the Children's Theatre Auditions button on the lower left corner.
At the audition your child will be asked to perform a two-minute performance, at least one minute of which must be an oral recitation of a memorized poem or monolog. For the other minute, he/she can either continue the oral presentation or sing, dance or play an instrument. A tape/CD player and MP3 jack will be available.
"You don't have to live in Oakland to be a Fairyland Personality, and no previous theatrical experience is necessary," says Children's Theatre Program Director Doyle Ott. "What we're looking for is children who love to sing, act and dance."
Go for it, kids! And good luck!