Theatre of the Imagination gives kids a chance to play more than a tree.

Imagine That 

Theatre of the Imagination gives kids a chance to play more than a tree.

Once upon a time, Miles McMahon was an actor on a roll. Fresh out of the University of Missouri-Kansas City's competitive MFA acting program, he was landing parts at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and the Unicorn, where his performance as Joe, the furtively gay Mormon, in Angels in America brought a Kansas City Drama Desk nomination.

Like many young actors from that graduate program whom theatergoers see for a short time and develop a fondness for before the new faces pack their wagons for bigger pastures, he was Chicago-bound.

"Then this happened," he says, gesturing to his wife, Dianna, while lunching at Sharp's in Brookside, one of the watering holes of choice for local actors. Chicago would have to wait. But that city's loss is a gain for theatrically inclined youth who have adopted McMahon as their Svengali and his Theatre of the Imagination as their little homegrown Juilliard.

So begins the fractured fairy tale that is fostering young talent across the city. It is the second summer of Theatre of the Imagination day camps -- intensive two-week classes held at the Alanz Theatre on East 63rd Street that involve the kids in every aspect of theatrical production before culminating with a show. Among this season's participants: local actors Dan and Cathy Barnett's daughter Julia, who must carry a show gene or two, and Timmy Jenkins, a stocky talent who was considered for the new Bruce Willis comedy, The Kid.

Theatre of the Imagination began two years ago at St. Peter's School in Brookside as an after-school drama program that eventually counted seven schools in its sweep, including Barstow and Notre Dame de Sion. McMahon now conducts classes year-round, including one last summer camp that starts July 31.

"I found that I loved it," McMahon says of becoming a teacher-cum-coach, "and Dianna and I decided there was a niche here for a new form of drama where everyone gets an equal part."

"It's not designed for kids who have a lot of experience," Dianna adds, "but both the experienced and the nonexperienced walk away with something."

The McMahons say that some other children's theater camps do a number on kids' self-esteem by either auditioning for slots or casting, as Miles says, "one person in the lead (while) everyone else plays a tree."

"We wanted to be flexible enough that we can take kids of all ranges and ages and get every kid on stage every five minutes," he says. He then recalls a childhood trauma that those with greasepaint in their blood fully understand: "My first play was in third grade. I was the third Christmas tree from the left, and Santa Claus got all the attention."

McMahon's approach blends historic theater training with a smattering of today's headlines. "They're like Ron Megee shows for kids," he says, referring to the work of the local actor, writer, and director known for his Late Night Theater shows, which spoof pop culture. Such Theatre of the Imagination productions include "a western about shampoo," which closed the last camp in June, and The Olathe Witch Project, the focus of the July 31 to Aug. 14 camp.

McMahon also thinks old scripts and musty stories are too prevalent in some children's theater for it to be of much interest for today's youngsters. "It's like, 'The scripts are 40 years old,'" he says. "If you've only been on this earth for eight years, what do you know about that? They're not at all timely. We can do parodies of things that happened today."

In the 15 plays he's written for Theatre of the Imagination over the past two years, one is as likely to find Eminem as David Copperfield, or Britney Spears instead of Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy. "We had one kid who, all he wanted was to play a monster. He didn't care what or where -- just make him a monster," McMahon says. "So I wrote a commercial parody and had him play the Hunchback of Notre Dame mixed with the Backstreet Boys."

The first camp of the summer closed with The Not-So-Sly Tricksters, a medieval morality tale about theft and pillage that opened with commercial parodies for such products as Viking-Be-Gone. It had a cast of 13 (including Jenkins) and truly reflected the McMahons' dedication to their egalitarian, everyone-in-the-spotlight casting philosophy.

Sydney George, 13, says she has attended other drama camps, where she "played a tree stump. I feel more a part of this than I did there. This is twice as fun."

McMahon still stretches his acting muscles with commercials and voice-over work. But he says he'd be perfectly content if Theatre of the Imagination is his sole job a year from now, which he and Dianna are optimistically projecting.

"I spent so much time doing other people's plays," he says. "This is where I've found my own voice."

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