Program takes kids to the theater

These aren’t your run-of-mill field trips.

Amy Martin, the associate artistic director at the Mount Baker Theatre, can’t say enough about the six programs local schoolchildren will have the opportunity to see this year.

This is the 12th year the theater has hosted low-cost educational programs for elementary and middle school students. It’s the fourth year that Frank and Mary King have provided sponsorship for what is known as the Wade Bennett King Education Series in memory of their son, who was one of three people who died as a result of the 1999 Olympic Pipe Line Co. explosion and fire.

The series, which is a community service for all public, private and homeschooled children in Whatcom and neighboring counties, begins today with two showings of STREB, a unique show that combines dancing and gymnastics. The public performance of STREB will be at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Martin, an accomplished opera singer and pianist, graduated from Bellingham High School in 1997 and from the University of Southern California, where she majored in vocal performance. She taught in Austria with a Fulbright Award before returning to Bellingham.

Question: As someone who is an accomplished performer herself, this series must have extra meaning for you.

Answer: It’s so rewarding to head up a program that cultivates an appreciation in young students for the performing arts. What I love is helping kids to see how entertainment is a magical, educational outlet that they can learn to take delight in throughout their lives.

Q: What exactly is STREB?

A: You can call it ballet in a mosh pit as powerful bodies fly, rebound and splat in an artfully dangerous, action-packed program of extreme sports meeting slapstick gymnastics. There’s never a dull sensory moment in this show. The woman who created and choreographed this show, Elisabeth Streb, really is a genius.

Q: How many students get the opportunity to attend?

A: Last year was my first with the educational series and I’ve grown to love it. We had seven shows, each with two performances, and more than 17,000 students, parents and teachers attended. We draw kids from Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties and we send information to every teacher — 3,000 invitations in all. We also get a lot of homeschoolers attending our shows, partly because of their flexible schedules. Anyone who has a student can reserve a ticket along with tickets for parents (who chaperone). Reservations can be made directly through the box office, which is new this year.

Q: What’s it like to have hundreds of kids descending on the Mount Baker Theatre?

A: I feel it has become a Bellingham tradition — usually, all 1,500 seats are filled for each educational show. I just wish they had had these shows when I was little. It’s really exciting when the kids arrive. It’s mayhem and it’s hilarious, but we eventually get them all seated. And it’s great to see how teachers get excited about seeing education come alive on the stage.

I won’t soon forget the kids’ reaction to a show of African acrobats we had last school year. Some kids have never been to the Mount Baker Theatre, so it’s fabulous to see their expressions and how much they love the shows. Their reactions are priceless. These really are shows of great quality.

Q: And it’s amazingly cheap, right?

A: We have the King family’s sponsorship to thank for our $5 per person admission, along with our individual show sponsors. We think it’s a wonderful bargain in education.

Q: What’s on tap this year?

A: STREB is full, but we have seats available for another show this month on Oct. 26, called “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” It’s a really fun musical based on the Newbery Medal-winning book by E.L. Konigsburg. It’s all about two kids having an adventure while being trapped in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Q: How many of the shows are exclusive for kids?

A: Of the six this year, STREB and the Birdhouse Factory also will have public showings (Nov. 7 for kids; Nov. 8 for the public). The other four shows will not. In March, we’ll start nine months of renovations at the Mount Baker Theatre, so that’s why this year’s series has six shows ending Feb. 27 with Portland Taiko, an Asian American drumming ensemble.

Other shows will be The Alley Cats, an a capella singing group with comic timing, on Dec. 12; and “Mad Science,” a live stage show exploring the zany side of science, on Feb. 13. We think that among our six shows this school year, there really is something for everyone’s interests.