Three years ago, Stan Gill came to Charleston with an express purpose: create within the community a children's theater of such high quality it would reshape the entire idea of local professional theater for kids.
He was well-equipped to do so, as his own brand of children's theater, Sprouts, has been in production since the 1970s. An award-winning lyricist, Gill began working in children's theater when a mentor reached out to him for some assistance in college. He quickly realized the shows they performed could be excellent, and Sprouts was born. Retellings of classic fairy tales are set within a formula he's developed through the years — songs, dances, audience participation, and an exciting, extended chase scene. The plays are available for rental by theater companies, and they've been produced all over the U.S. as well as in Europe and Canada.
When he arrived in Charleston he carried with him all the bits and bobs to recreate this special brand of children's theater for local audiences. Based out of Creative Spark in Mt. Pleasant for the past three years, Sprouts has thrived and become one of the most beloved theatrical establishments in the region.
If you talk to anyone at Creative Spark, you hear the same thing: Stan Gill is Sprouts, and Sprouts is Stan Gill. But to truly understand the power of Sprouts, and of Gill himself, you need only go to one of their shows.
At a recent Sprouts' production of Little Red Riding Hood, one little girl stood out as a newcomer. Walking into the tiny theater, where a tattered carpet represents the most coveted seating in the house, she clung to her mother's hand. When prodded to move forward to sit with the other kids, her only response was an evil stare. She was nervous, shy, as many kids are when facing new situations. And she was absolutely terrified at the prospect of seeing the Big, Bad Wolf (played by Gill).
But then the show started, and the change in the little girl was almost instantaneous. She was mesmerized. When Little Red, her mother, Granny, and the Huntsman sang and danced, the little girl laughed and tried to sing along. Slowly she scooted forward, away from her mother.
When the Wolf came out, all hell broke loose, and she ran back to the safety of her mother's lap — but only for a moment.
The children around her shrieked with laughter at the Wolf. He was mean. He was snarky. A disconcertingly cartoonish mask covered the majority of the face and yet, as he sang and danced, the children clapped and screamed with delight. When he talked directly to the audience, they whooped and yelled in response. And suddenly the little girl marched bravely forward to face the beast, leaving her mother behind. She joined in the fun and had the time of her life.
That's what Sprouts is all about.
"Children's theater doesn't always get included when people talk about theater as a whole, but now people are starting to understand how important it is," says Sarah Callahan, an actor and director with Sprouts. "The children that come to see our shows are the future of theatergoers."
Christina Leidel, a physics professor by day and a Sprouts actor by night, agrees. "There is a tendency among the general public to think that children's theater is somehow less important or lower quality than standard theater. I believe Sprouts is helping to disprove this idea by providing shows with high-caliber performances, inventive sets, beautiful costumes, and music that is often surprisingly sophisticated. Sprouts gives people, young and old, what we all from time to time have a deep yearning for — escape, laughter, wonder, and an outlet for creativity."
It's something each cast member seems to fully believe.
After the show ended and the children filtered out, the full cast of Little Red Riding Hood gathered by the door to say good-bye. The shy little girl worked her way slowly down the line, gathering up her courage to see the Big, Bad Wolf.
Beneath his mask, Gill smiled at her, all of the crustiness of his wolfish exterior dissolving. "Thanks so much for coming out tonight," he said, his voice low and throaty but kind. "I hope you had fun." He offered his hand.
She took it. "I did," she said, her eyes still huge. She responded to Gill's enthusiasm, his kindness, and even the crusty exterior.
The Sprouts season continues with Beauty and the Beast in early December. Gill may eventually transition out of Charleston to pursue other interests, but when he does he'll leave behind his sets, his scripts, and a legacy of high-quality children's theater. And that's a great thing, at least according to Creative Spark's Brandi Elkins. "Stan Gill and Sprouts have provided us a breath of fresh air with its originality and continued professional talent that is simply unsurpassed."
Stan Gill may be Sprouts, and Sprouts may be Stan Gill, but no matter what happens, Sprouts is in the Lowcountry to stay.