Finding a bear a button

Finding a bear a button

Kids’ playwright from Elizabeth talks about ‘Corduroy’

Keegan Robinson and Mimi Kol-Balfour; right, Ileri Okikiolu in a scene from “Corduroy.” (Dan Norman)
Keegan Robinson and Mimi Kol-Balfour; right, Ileri Okikiolu in a scene from “Corduroy.” (Dan Norman)

Barry Kornhauser wrote his first play for children when he was still a child. To be precise, he was in sixth grade.

“The teacher saw I had a silly sense of humor and I liked writing, so I was asked to write our sixth-grade play for the school,” he said.

The dialogue, the plot, the jokes — all have faded from memory. But what is clear is that the seed planted in the Elizabeth school system more than 50 years ago has blossomed into making Mr. Kornhauser, 70, one of the most prominent (and award-winning) playwrights for children.

The trip down memory lane is precipitated by another production (in this case a reproduction) of one of his most popular plays, “Corduroy.” It’s being produced again by the Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis, which commissioned and debuted it five years ago.

It is based on Don Freeman’s two “Corduroy” books and tells the story of Lisa, a little girl who falls in love with a department store teddy bear. But her mother won’t buy it for her, because she sees that it’s missing a button and considers it to be damaged. The bear, named Corduroy, sets off at night to find the button. An exasperated night watchman pursues him. And, of course, kid-pleasing hijinks ensue.

The play received rave reviews at its debut and at subsequent productions in Seattle and elsewhere. But the road traveled between sixth grade and “Corduroy” was taken before Waze, with some bumpy misdirection along the way. Fortunately, Mr. Kornhauser’s travels were helped by teachers and friends who spotted his talent and set him on the right path.

Ileri Okikiolu in a scene from “Corduroy.” (Dan Norman)

Mr. Kornhauser grew up in a Jewish household in Elizabeth, where the holidays were celebrated, and opportunities to serve as junior rabbi are fondly remembered.

He began producing short 8mm films a la Steven Spielberg in “The Fablemans.” “I thought I could get out of writing a book report,” he said. “At the time, a roll of film was only about four minutes long. So I could explain some concept of history — ancient Rome or ancient Egypt — and because it was creative and different, it was a guaranteed A.”

School administrators noticed and had him make educational films for the district. But Mr. Kornhauser still didn’t get the hint. “I was always interested in working for and with young people, so when I started college, I majored in child development and behavior,” he said. That was at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“On a lark,” he took a playwriting course and, once again, a teacher noticed his talent. “The professor took a shine to me and encouraged me to do more. To coax me to get more involved in theater, when the professor directed plays for the theater, he asked me to be his stage manager.” The prof also produced a play Mr. Kornhauser wrote, an absurdist piece called “Comparable Effects Have Been Found in Lizards” that doesn’t open itself to easy (or for that matter difficult) summary.

But he still didn’t get the hint.

Barry Kornhauser

Instead he got a job as a teacher in the Elizabeth school system. In the early 1980s, he and his wife, Carol, who also went to school in the Lancaster area, thought Pennsylvania Dutch country would be a good place to raise a family. It was midway between his parents’ home in Jersey and hers in D.C. Fortunately, a friend from that playwriting class had been named artistic director of children’s theater programs at the Fulton Theater in Lancaster.

That friend had an opening for a stage manager, and soon Mr. Kornhauser was doubling as a playwright. His first, in 1982, was “The People Express,” a musical train ride through life. The following year he produced “Inner Grace,” about a 12-year-old girl, bitter and withdrawn after an accident left her paralyzed.

Plays came at the rate of about one a year, on diverse subjects but with common themes. “I think I tend to deal a lot with kids’ hopes and concerns,” he said. So often, in one way or another, the plays are about loss.

“I had that as a kid,” Mr. Kornhauser said. “I remember when my dad would go away on a business trip, I was always nervous that something would happen to him and he wouldn’t come back. Those feelings were very strong, and in dealing with a lot of young people through my youth theater program, I know that kids face a lot of challenges, including loss, on a lot of levels.

“What I try to do is to open up avenues of discussion to help them understand that other people are feeling the same.”

Ileri Okikiolu is Lisa and Lauren Davis is her mother. (Dan Norman)

He has only written one play, “Worlds Apart,” that had a Jewish character. When Christopher Columbus set off on his journey, history tells us, he placed his son in a monastery. It also was the same day that Jews were expelled from Spain. Mr. Kornhauser’s conceit for the play is that the boy runs away from the monastery, hoping to sneak aboard one of his father’s ships. Instead, he lands on a boat transporting Jewish exiles, where his story becomes entwined with that of Rosa, a young Jewish girl.

But even though his plays are not overtly Jewish, “Jewish sensibilities are a big part of what I choose to do,” Mr. Kornhauser said. “Jewish values and ethics are always a part of my plays. A lot of my characters are underdogs or marginalized in some way. All things that are part of the Jewish experience.

“At the same time, I use a lot of humor in my plays. I like funny stuff. I like to see little kids laugh. And I think that’s also Jewish, too.”

Mr. Kornhauser did have one adult play produced — and very successfully. It was an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac that ran at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. It won several Helen Hayes awards for achievement in the Washington area. But it was not enough to convince him to switch allegiances.

“It was very exciting, but my heart is still working with kids,” he said. “I think it’s the most important audience and the best audience, and I’m very happy writing for them.”

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