Center stage: David Saar on the importance of theater for youth

When David Saar calls working at Childsplay "a life sentence," he's hardly joking.

Saar founded the theater company in 1977 to provide high-quality professional theater for young audiences. It started as an extension of his thesis project for his master's degree at ASU, but has since transformed into much more.

Childsplay is now approaching its 40th anniversary as a staple of the Tempe performing arts community, with Saar as its artistic director.

Unlike the philosophy behind many theater groups, Saar said he believes it's vital for Childsplay to reach youthful audiences without filtering the content.

"There should be no difference in theater for kids in terms of design or storytelling," he said. "If anything, it has to be better, because kids aren't as polite, and they'll let you know if they don't like it. That's exciting."

Center Stage is a weekly series profiling distinguished performing artists in Phoenix and Tempe and their impact in the community.

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"The Yellow Boat"

One of Childsplay's values is that theater should not only credit youth for their insight and wisdom, but speak to things they deal with in real life.

In 2003, Childsplay produced a play that Saar wrote based on the life and death of his son, Benjamin, who was born with congenital hemophilia and died at age 8 of AIDS-related complications. The play, titled "The Yellow Boat," uses Benjamin's perspective and artwork to explore the issues of death and dying in a way that speaks to younger audiences.

Childsplay business operations manager Steve Martin said people advised against producing a play about the death of a child, especially for a young audience, but the company decided to move forward under Saar's direction.

"We've evolved into doing plays about suicide, depression, the death of a parent, literacy and domestic violence," Martin said. "There are very few subjects we're not willing to tackle, but with children in mind. We want to make sure we give them coping tools to understand the world around them."

One of the ways that Childsplay takes learning beyond the stage is by producing educational materials such as discussion questions, printable worksheets, puzzles, coloring pages and activities that correspond with each performance. The guide for "The Yellow Boat" included explanations of HIV/AIDS and hemophilia, as well as what students could do to help spread awareness and fundraise.

A life sentence ... of happiness?

The educational materials, as well as many of Childsplay's other features including touring productions, summer classes, and in-school programs, are available because of its "ensemble-based" staff format.

The Childsplay actors are hired as full-time, year-round employees, and many staff members find that the environment naturally creates a family atmosphere.

"We say that if you go to Childsplay it's a life sentence," Martin said with a laugh, echoing Saar and several of his colleagues. "People don't stay because we pay them a lot of money, but we have people who've been here 35 plus years. I didn't expect to stay for 15 years."

Martin described it as an environment of "frustration and exhilaration."

"I just love working here," he said. "It means a lot to me on a daily basis. When I come in every morning, I'm doing something fun, exciting and innovative in arts, theater and education."

Associate artist Debra Stevens is working on her 34th season with Childsplay, and the creative space is her favorite part of the job.

"There's nothing better than being able to tell a story beautifully, superbly, to an audience who responds in the same way," Stevens said. "There's nothing like that. I love the creative atmosphere of the company, the feeling that you know you're an important part of the art that's being created."

A new chapter

Saar said he looks forward to the future of Childsplay, even as the context of his role in the company is changing.

At the end of this season, Saar will retire as artistic director after four decades of leading the organization. He will stay on the Childsplay team as artistic director emeritus, but his current role will be assumed by Dwayne Hartford, another associate artist currently working with Childsplay.

Saar is looking forward to the opportunity to explore his other interests. He and his wife plan to travel to their bucket list destinations around the world, including New Zealand, Austria, the South Pacific, South America and their own place in Norway. He also plans to write more and pick up gardening, two of his interests that he will be able to focus on without the all-consuming theater job.

The other members of the Childsplay team are grateful for the way Saar has developed and shaped the organization.

Katie McFadzen has been an associate artist with Childsplay for 22 years. She describes Saar as a powerful mentor and coordinator for the rest of the team.

"David is an amazing person and amazing artist," McFadzen said. "He's probably one of the most joyful people I've ever met in my life. He's got a twinkle in his eye and he's one of these people that will cry at the drop of the hat because he feels so strongly and deeply about life and art. He's just been a delightful mentor and also has been such a good facilitator of artists. When the artists get together and work, he lets us do our thing and just guides us in the process."

Saar has succeeded in creating a space for performing artists to work together to educate and inspire the next generation. So perhaps a career at Childsplay isn't a life sentence, but rather a life spent giving back to youth and building lifelong connections along the way. 

Reach the reporter at or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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