See how YouTube sensation Caine’s Arcade inspired new Zach Theatre, Teatro Vivo play ‘JJ’s Arcade’

Diego Rodriguez plays Jose Joaquin Hernandez in “JJ’s Arcade,” produced by Teatro Vivo and Zach Theatre.

Almost 6 million people watched a YouTube video of a 9-year-old boy who built an arcade out of cardboard boxes in his father’s auto parts store in East Los Angeles. One of them was playwright José Casas, who was from Los Angeles but spent two years in Austin working on a master’s of fine art at the University of Texas before getting a job at the University of Michigan.

Cases began creating  a bilingual play for family theater called “JJ’s Arcade,” and elicited the help of  Zach Theatre’s director of education Nat Miller to bring the play to the stage.

The play was one of six chosen for the 2016 Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices workshop and festival. Last May, Miller and Casas spent a week in Washington, D.C., working with provided equity actors on refining the script and staging the play.

Now in a bicycle shop-turned rehearsal space next to Zach’s theaters, an Austin cast and crew is getting “JJ’s Arcade” ready for its world premiere three-week run at the the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center April 14-May 7.

In the New Visions/New Voices workshop, “JJ’s Arcade” was the only bilingual play. And, says Miller, there just aren’t enough bilingual plays for families available to theaters who are interested in staging them. “I have all the scripts I can possibly find,” Miller says. The list isn’t long, filling only a page. “Our purpose is to be able to add to that canon.”

Zach has made it a priority to stage at least one bilingual play a year and has been working with producing partner Teatro Vivo on that mission. Together they have staged “Mariachi Girl,” “Salt & Pepper,” “Tomás and the Library Lady” and “Cenicienta” Cinderella story. “JJ’s Arcade” is the third new work Zach and Teatro Vivo have created. They developed “Mariachi Girl” for the stage and helped it get published so it could be presented by other children’s theaters. Two years ago they created “Cenicienta” with Glass Half Full Theatre. They also made “Salt & Pepper” bilingual for the first time.

The commitment to producing more bilingual works extends into the future. Zach, Teatro Vivo and Glass Half Full Theatre will team up again next year for a show being developed by Glass Half Full’s Caroline Reck:  “The Adventures of Enoughie: A Story of Kindness.” It will also be staged at the MACC.

While the bilingual theater shows often don’t make money, Miller says, it’s important to have plays reflect the audience that Zach serves, especially the 55,000 school children who visit a Zach show every year.

“JJ’s Arcade” actors are all bilingual and have helped add more Spanish to the play as they reflect how their families would say things. They add it where it will make sense for English-only speakers as well.

While teachers love bringing their kids to bilingual shows, Miller says, sometimes it’s harder to convince the public audience to come. More known stories like “Elephant and Piggie,” which is currently on stage, and “Good Night Moon,” which is coming next year, is an easier sell. English-speaking audiences might might think they wouldn’t understand what is happening or that they wouldn’t be able to identify with the characters. That just isn’t true.

“Bilingual theater is more interesting,” says Teatro Vivo’s Executive Artistic Director Mario Ramirez, who also plays the father in “JJ’s Arcade.” “Even more people feel welcome.”

In the play, J.J. — short for Jose Joaquin — has lost his mother and is having trouble in school. A meeting between his teacher and his father and J.J.’s fantasy conversation with his late mother reveals that J.J. should probably be tested for dyslexia. J.J. gets suspended from school for fighting, and while he’s home, he hangs out in his father’s auto parts store, turning boxes into arcade games.
“The play deals with a lot of real issues,” Miller says — death, trouble connecting with his father, learn disabilities. And while struggle is part of it, “There’s a lot to celebrate in the play.”

JJ’s father’s employee Oscar sets up a surprise. He gets the story of J.J.’s arcade posted on Facebook and suddenly there’s a line out the door waiting to play J.J.’s arcade.

“It’s really about celebrating imagination and intelligence,” Miller says. J.J. is the kind of kid who might not excel in school, but he’s got a different kind of intelligence. He needs to be encouraged and supported to help him find what he’s good at. “It’s a metaphor for the arts in general.”

It’s also a testimony to how important fathers and father-figures are. It reflects the Mexican-American culture of men being taught to be strong and to take care of themselves, but it also teaches a lesson of needing to ask for help and rely on one another.

“He has really positive male characters in his life,” says Martinique Duchene-Phillips of Teatro Vivo, who plays the mother and teacher. “It doesn’t have a lot of stereotypes of the deadbeat dad.”

Just like people lined up to play Caine’s Arcade, people will line up to play “JJ’s Arcade.” All of the cardboard games created for the show work. If you come to one of the public shows, you can play JJ’s Plinko, labrynth or another game. At a rehearsal for press and donors, the cast and crew had trouble getting the adults to stop playing.

“JJ’s Arcade.”

For ages 7 and up.

When: 7 p.m. April 14, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays except April 30, April 14-May 7. 2 p.m. April 29 sign-language-interpreted and sensory-friendly performance.

Where: Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.

Tickets: $13-$15.



Get free tickets to Pollyanna Theatre’s “All Aboard”

“All Aboard” is on stage with Pollyanna Theatre Company at the Long Center.

Austin family theater group Pollyanna Theatre Company will be presenting its newest play “All Aboard” beginning next week at the Long Center. “All Aboard” explores different modes of transportation. Your kids who love things on wheels — trains, cars and the like — will especially love it.

This production is geared toward children ages 18 months to four years and is part of its “Play and Play” program.

I’ve got a pack of four tickets to give away. Email me at by Tuesday, March 28 at noon with your name, phone number and which performances you can attend to enter to win.

“All Aboard”

9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. March 30-April 1, April 4-8

The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive


Zach Theatre announces its 2017-2018 season. What’s in it for families?

The creators of “Cenicienta” will return with “The Adventures of Enoughie” for the 2017-2018 season at Zach Theatre.

Zach Theatre has become one of the best theater for all — aka children’s theater — programs in Austin. Next season, it will bring some classic stories — “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Goodnight Moon” as well as a newcomer, a bilingual story “The Adventures of Enoughie: A Story of Kindness.” It’s being written by Caroline Reck, who gave us the Cinderella story “Cenicienta,” and is a collaboration between Zach, Reck’s Glass Half Full theater, Teatro Vivo and The Kindness Project. Of course, the Christmas classic “Holiday Heroes” returns as well.

On the regular theater schedule is “Beauty and the Beast” the musical, which families will enjoy as well.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” For ages 5 and up. Sept. 9-Feb. 4, 2018, Kleberg Stage

“Holiday Heroes.” For ages 3 and up. Dec. 2 and 9, Topfer Stage

“Goodnight Moon.” For ages 3 and up. March 2-May 27, 2018, Kleberg Stage.

“The Adventures of Enoughie: A Story of Kindness.” For ages 3 and up. Spring. Mexican American Cultural Center.

“Beauty and the Beast.” July 11-September 2, 2018, Topfer Stage.

Get tickets and find more information at

See theater this month at Zach:

“Elephant and Piggie: We Are in a Play!” The Mo Willems story comes to the stage. 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 30. 11 a.m. Saturdays. $16-$21. Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Theatre, 1421 W. Riverside Drive.

“JJ’s Arcade.” Zach Theater and Teatro Vivo present this play about a boy who builds an arcade out of leftover cardboard. For ages 7 and up. 7 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays except April 30, through May 7. 2 p.m. April 29 sign-language-interpreted and sensory-friendly performance. $13-$15. Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.



Have fun with “Elephant & Piggie” at Zach Theatre

David Peña as Gerald the Elephant and Amanda Clifton as Piggie in the 2017 production of "Elephant And Piggie: We Are In A Play!" at ZachTheatre. Photo by Kirk Tuck
David Peña as Gerald the Elephant and Amanda Clifton as Piggie in the 2017 production of “Elephant And Piggie: We Are In A Play!” at ZachTheatre. Photo by Kirk Tuck

If your kids love the “Elephant & Piggie” books by Mo Willems, they will be rolling in the aisles of Zach Theatre’s Kleburg Theatre for “Elephant & Piggie’s: We are in a Play.”

The play explores themes of friendship. What happens when a friend breaks a toy? Do you stop being their friend? Of course not. Should you share your ice cream cone with your friend? Probably, though the mother in me that isn’t a fan of sharing germs, would have said, probably not.

It’s all done with larger-than-life movements and silly musical numbers. David Peña as Gerald the elephant has Gerald’s anxiety-filled personality down. Amanda Clifton as Piggie has fun with her carefree spirit.. Rounding out the cast is Megan Richards Wright, Jessica O’Brien and Kelly Petlin as the Squirelles, a girl group made up of squirrels.

The action is going along with Gerald and Piggie filling their day with fun games, going to a party and learning to dance, and then something happens. They look out and realize  … They are in a play!!!

Who are those people out there? Why, they are the audience! Soon, they have the audience clapping on cue, saying “banana” over and over again and then doing silly hand motions.

The kids in our audience were eating it up, especially, when they had the grownups do the hand motions.

The musical, directed by Abe Reybold and under the musical direction of Allen Robertson, isn’t deep, thought-proving theater, but it is fun and familiar. Kids preschool through early elementary school will have a ball.

We know this show will pick up a big audience because it’s based on well-loved, familiar books. We just hope that the same audience will also go see “JJ’s Arcade” in April. The bilingual show is written by University of Texas playwright José Casas and being produced by Zach Theatre and Teatro Vivo. Zach’s education department has become the best in town for theater for families through its pioneering bilingual productions. We look forward to seeing what it will do with “JJ’s Arcade.”

“Elephant and Piggie’s: We Are in a Play” 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 30 (except March 11). 11 a.m. Saturdays April 15, 22, 29. Sensory-friendly and sign-language interpreted 2 p.m. March 4. $16-$21. Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Theatre, 1421 W. Riverside Drive. 

Theater review: Zach Theatre’s “Charlotte’s Web” puts bluegrass spin on E.B. White classic

"Charlotte's Web" is at Zach Theatre through Dec. 3. Winnie Hsia from Sky Candy plays Charlotte. Kirk Tuck
“Charlotte’s Web” is at Zach Theatre through Dec. 3. Winnie Hsia from Sky Candy plays Charlotte. Kirk Tuck

“Terrific,” “Radiant,” “Humble,” “Some Pig.” These words, which the character of Charlotte spins into her web in “Charlotte’s Web,” could easily describe the production at Zach Theatre. On stage through Dec. 3, the production was adapted from the E.B. White book by Joseph Robinette, and directed by Zach’s Education Director Nat Miller with musical direction by Allen Robertson.

Robertson, who was one half of the KLRU kids’ show “The Biscuit Brothers,” works with the other Biscuit Brother Jerome Schoolar, as well as Amanda Clifton, Amber Quick and  Joseph Quintana, to create the bluegrass band that furnishes the preshow and show music. The band plays humble, old-fashioned hymns including “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Will the Circle by Unbroken.” The songs set the stage perfectly of a humble farm where an extraordinary pig, Wilbur, is born.

The musicians in the band do double duty as the Zuckerman family, farmhands and county fair participants as well as the animals on the farm: Sheep, Goose and Gander, and Templeton, the rat. Simple costume changes and movement help the audience quickly switch from seeing human to seeing animal. The actors for Wilbur, the pig, (in Thursday morning’s 10 a.m. show played by Diego Rodriguez) and his human champion, Fern (played in this show by Mariela Denson), also join the band between scenes.

The clear star of this show is Charlotte, played by Sky Candy Aerial & Circus Arts’ Winnie Hsia. For all of the show’s simplicity, Hsia creates wonder in the weaving of the letters into the spider’s web. Each time she weaves, Hsia does one death-defying trick after another while the audience watches each letter be written in an illuminated sign above the metal web. It is magical.

For a show that lets audience see the characters change, these letters are the one secret hidden from the audience that captivated the first-grade students that were in the audience at our viewing.

Bits of physical humor including Wilbur trying to show Charlotte that he is radiant by dancing; Wilbur trying to escape the farmer and farmhand; a cocky, much larger pig at the fair; and the support cast of farm animals, also kept this normally squirmy audience engaged in the hour-long show.

Even though this is not a show that Zach Theatre wrote for the stage, it put its own spin on the show by the using an aerialist as the spider to creating a bluegrass band and playing hymns, instead of the original Broadway musical’s production numbers. That makes it “Some Show.”

“Charlotte’s Web”

When: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 29-30, Nov. 5-6, 12-13, 19-20, 25-27, Dec. 3; 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, Nov. 5, 12, 19, 26 and Dec. 3

Where: Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Theatre, 1421 W. Riverside Drive

Tickets: $16-$21




Zach Theatre’s family shows next year: “Charlotte’s Web,” “Elephant and Piggie” and bilingual play with Teatro Vivo

charlotteZach Theatre announces its 2016-17 family theater lineup and there’s much to be excited about.

First up: “Charlotte’s Web,” Oct. 14-Dec. 3. This version will feature bluegrass music and aerial artists from Sky Candy. It’s for ages 3 and up.

Then the Christmas sing-along tradition “Holiday Heroes” returns on Dec. 17. It’s for ages 3 and up.

Feb. 17-29, Mo Willems’ creation “Elephant and Piggie: We are in a Play” comes to life as a musical with backup singers the Squirrelles. It’s designed for ages 3 and up.

April 14-May 7, you’ll find Zach at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center for a bilingual play that is being co-produced with Teatro Vivo. “JJ’s Arcade” is based on the YouTube “Caine’s Arcade,” and tells the story of a boy who builds an arcade out of cardboard in his father’s garage after his mother dies. This play is for ages 7 and older.

In addition to the public shows, Zach brings school groups to these shows at a reduced rate. Find out more information at


Congratulations to Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards winners

Wednesday night, the winners of the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards were announced at the Long Center. The awards are created in partnership with the Long Center, the University of Texas at Austin College of Fine Arts and Zach Theatre.

High-schoolers perform their productions at the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.
High-schoolers perform their productions at the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.


Best Production                                              

Hendrickson High School                              “Urinetown: The Musical”


Best Direction

Hendrickson High School                              “Urinetown: The Musical”


gahsmta2Best Choreography

Cedar Ridge High School                               “AIDA”


Best Musical Direction

James Bowie High School                             “Tarzan”


Best Orchestra 

James Bowie High School                           “Tarzan”


Best Scenic Design

Round Rock High School                                                “Mary Poppins”


Best Lighting Design

Rouse High School                                           “Guys and Dolls”


Best Costume Design

St. Stephen’s Episcopal School                  “The Addams Family”


Best Technical Execution

Vista Ridge High School                                “Young Frankenstein”


Best Ensemble

McCallum Fine Arts Academy                     “Titanic”


Best Actor in a Leading Role

Pedro Castenada (Hendrickson High School)       “Urinetown: The Musical”


Best Actress in a Leading Role

Sophie Niles (McNeil High School)                            “Little Shop of Horrors”


Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Harmon Gamble (Hendrickson High School)         “Urinetown: The Musical”


Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Chloe Byars (James Bowie High School)                 “Tarzan”


Best Featured Performer (TIE)

Kayja Thomas (Cedar Creek High School)                              “Footloose”


Scholarship Recipients

Kaitlin Hatton, DJ Fortner, David Pena, Jesse Hernandez, Joseph Kelley, Alex Poole, Tristan Banuelos, Alyssa Anderson, Audrey Dickerson, Makasha Copeland, Adele Simms


School Grants

Bastrop High School

Del Valle High School

Georgetown High School

John B. Connally High School

David Crockett High School

Scottish Rite Theater’s “The Town Musicians of Mumbai” brings fun for the preschool set to the stage

mumbaiSeeing family theater at Scottish Rite is a different experience than the other theaters in town. A young audience can sit on a carpeted area in front of the stage while their parents sit in the seats behind or to the side. This makes this young audience feel like they really are a part of the show. Even as they wait for the show to start, the audience is invited to color their coloring page programs with the provided crayons.

When Scottish Rite turns the classic fable, “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” into the Bollywood version, “The Town Musicians of Mumbai,” the audience feels like they are in the forest with the animals and the robbers. So much so that when Donkey (Sean Gajjar), breaks the fourth wall and wonders out loud about what he’s going to do now that the farmer wants to put him out to pasture, the young audience has no problem answering him, even if he didn’t really ask for their help. In many ways, this production invites this from the fourth wall breaking to the group chicken dance at the end.

The dancing and the music give this production its energy. Live music from the Sacred Cowgirls Band — Pauravi Rana on keyboard, Marguerite Elliott on violin, and Kim Roche on bass — keeps the play moving along and gives the audience different ways to experience the story.

Donkey decides to head to the big city of Mumbai to become a singer. After all, he believes he has a great voice (It is very evident when you hear him braying that he does not). Off he goes through the forest to get to Mumbai. Meanwhile, we meet two bumbling robbers (Robert Deike and Chris Humphrey) who have stolen gold, fabrics and food from a wedding party. They run from a tiger and find a cave for their hideout.

Along Donkey’s journey, he meets a Dog (Minnie Homchowdhury), who is so old that her master is going to send her to the animal shelter because she can no longer be a watchdog. Dog also has a lovely howl (not really) and decides to join Donkey in Mumbai. Then they meet Cat (Preya Patel), who has a screeching meow, and has been replaced by a cute kitten. The merry band of musicians is complete when they meet Rooster (Megan Ortiz), who is going to be put in the curry pot, and has a lovely ear-ringing cockadoodledoo.

As each new member joins the team, we are treated to a performance of animal song and dance. Each animal has its own way of moving that is indicative of its species that goes along with the group choreography.

Meanwhile, the robbers are enjoying their feast, when they settle down for the night. Along comes the musicians, who see the feast, and decide to sing for their supper.

Of course, the robbers can’t make out that its just a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster that have invaded their cave. They run off, leaving their riches for the musicians to enjoy.

Scottish Rite Theater is truly a theater where you could bring any age and it would be OK. In fact, on Saturday morning, we saw kids from toddlers to grade-schoolers as well as their parents and grandparents. We even saw a father bring his adult daughter, who had developmental delays, and she could enjoy theater just as much as the kids on the carpet without judgement. This was also some of the most diverse audiences we’ve seen at local family theater shows, both in age, heritage and language spoken at home.

At 45 minutes, it’s a short show that moves quickly, making it a great introduction to theater for younger audiences.

“The Town Musicians of Mumbai”

11 a.m. Saturday through April 30; 1 p.m. Sundays through May 1. $8-$12. Scottish Rite Theatre, 207 W. 18th St.


Zach Theatre’s “James and the Giant Peach” charms, entertains

"James and the Giant Peach" is at Zach Theatre through April 10. Kirk Tuck
“James and the Giant Peach” is at Zach Theatre through April 10. Kirk Tuck

Zach Theatre’s “James and the Giant Peach” brings the classic book by Roald Dahl to life through April 10. The musical plays right to elementary schoolers’ love for physical humor.

The aunts, Spiker (Amber Quick) and Sponge (Kim Stacy), in particular, supply much of the humor, as well as the fear. They see the orphan James (played by young actors Chris Carpenter and Diego Rodriguez) as a commodity to work for them. They make their living as both pick pockets and con artists. And, of course, when a magic giant peach grows on their property, they see it as another way to make money. They have gotten rich selling the rights to the peach in advance.

One night, they banish James from the house and he find his way into the peach, where insects have grown magically to the size of humans.

Soon the peach, escapes the tree and rolls off the cliffs of Dover, making its way to the Atlantic Ocean and eventually to New York City. Still scheming, the aunts, have taken all their money and booked a cruise. Of course, from their deck chairs, they see the peach floating on the water and vow to get it back.

zach-Peach3-4145The insects — Ladybug (Jessica O’Brien), Spider (Megan Wright), Centipede (Russel Taylor), Grasshopper (Michael Marchese) and Earthworm (Gustavo Gomez) — and James form a family on their journey and they protect one another and the peach.

One of the strongest elements of this play is this question of what is a family? James has lost his only to be plopped into life with two aunts who are less-than hospitable. The insects have all lost their families to pesticide sprayed by the aunts. Yet, together, James and the insects overcome their differences and create a lasting bond.

Like a family, the cast works well together. Harmonies are particularly tight in the large musical numbers. It is a true ensemble cast. Each character is given a chance to shine with unique characteristics and costuming, but also opportunities to take a back seat and support another character. It’s a good lesson in working together for young kids.

There are a few scary parts — James’ dream about his parents’ death by  a runaway rhinoceros, in particular, but the musical quickly moves along. For that reason, the musical is better suited for elementary school-age kids rather than preschoolers.

The costumes, which were originally designed for Alliance Theatre by Sydney Lenior, are particularly smart. How do you make a man look like an earthworm? Salmon-colored fabric that is given thick rings nested together, just as an earthworm’s body does. How do you make a centipede’s many legs? Fabric belts coming off of the shirt and boots. It’s all very smart.

At an hour and 15 minutes, this is one of Zach Theatre’s longest musicals for family audiences. Some members of the audiences squirmed a bit in the middle, and we saw a couple trips to the bathroom in our elementary school student audience.

Some of the biggest laughs come from Sponge, the aunt who will never be called skinny. Many of her jokes are about her love of food and her figure. In this age of worrying about girl’s body image and obesity, it was just too much. One or two jokes, maybe, but constant jokes on this line becomes unsettling.

Still “James and the Giant Peach” is worth seeing. Kids will love all the insects and love to hate the aunts. Sometimes Zach Theatre opts to use adults in their 20s to play young children. In this case, it opted to use an actual boy. In our performance, Diego Rodriguez was particularly strong with a beautiful voice. His age makes him even more identifiable to a young audience.

“James and the Giant Peach.”

When: 11 a.m. Saturday, March, 12, 19, 26; April 2, 9. 2 p.m. Sunday, Saturday, March 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, 27; April 2, 3, 9; and 4:30 p.m. April 10

Where: Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside Drive

Tickets: $29 adults, $26 children






Looking for something to do on Saturday? Pollyanna Theatre at LBJ Library

“Liberty! Equality! and Fireworks!” is at the LBJ Library.
“Liberty! Equality! and Fireworks!” is at the LBJ Library.

This Saturday, Pollyanna Theatre is presenting its “Liberty! Equality! and Fireworks!” at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum. The play celebrates the history of the Civil Rights Act for elementary school-age audiences and was written with the help of the LBJ Museum. We wrote about the play in 2014 when it debuted.  The play is about a group of fourth-graders visiting a museum and learning about the struggles of the 1960s. The characters in the photographs come to life and explain their story.

The performance on Saturday is free. Find it at 2 p..m in the LBJ Library Auditorium, 2313 Red River St.