Theater of the Absurd

By Dick Anderson Photos by Marc Campos

Occidental Children’s Theater has delighted audiences of all ages for 29 seasons—but what’s next after Cinderalice in Wonderland? We went to Jamie Angell for answers

Occidental Children’s Theater has been a staple of the Northeast L.A. community for nearly three decades now. But before it became the institution that we all know and love, there was a predecessor children’s theater company that—well, how shall we put it nicely?

Children’s Theater auteur Jamie Angell.
Children’s Theater auteur Jamie Angell.

“I just didn’t think it was very good or successful,” says Resident Professor Jamie Angell, an alumnus of Oxy’s Summer Theater Festival who joined the College in 1991 as an instructor in theater. “I thought, ‘I can do this better,’ because I’d had experience touring with a professional children’s theater in Thetford, Vermont. I felt I could take what we’d done there and make it even more stripped down.’ It was kind of hubris on my part, but it turned out fine.

“Over the years, we’ve developed a whole lot of associate programs,”  he adds. “We have the Summer Institute of Fun, a four-week summer camp that caters to 6- to 8-year olds in the morning and 9- to 13-year-olds in the afternoon.” (There’s also a one-week session for kids 11 to 15, and a Saturday camp during the school year—an eight-week session each fall and spring for ages 6-8 and 9-12.)

To meet the demands of Children’s Theater year-round, Angell gets a course release during the academic year to manage things. But the curriculum will look slightly different next spring: Angell retired from the classroom this May. “I’ve taught here for 33 years, which seems like plenty of time,” he says. “Next year, I’ll still get my course release pay to coordinate all the yearlong stuff for Children’s Theater. In that sense, I’m not leaving.” In addition, Angell will be expanding his two-unit Children’s Theater class into a “more robust” four-unit class for the future. He’ll also continue to conceive and write the original summer production that the six-member troupe performs, alongside three traditional folk tales from around the world, over the show’s seven-week summer run (this year’s play is titled Cinderalice in Wonderland).

“This summer will be the 29th year we’ve done Children’s Theater, so I feel like I need to get to 30,” Angell says. But will he remain with the program beyond its pearl anniversary? “I don’t know. Maybe. I couldn’t say. I didn’t think I was going to do it this long.”

Angell has been the creative spark behind Children’s Theater from the jump, working with longtime friend Nick Erickson, associate professor of movement at Louisiana State University, who with Angell ran a two-week boot camp for the ensemble each year.

Performers from the 2023 Occidental Children’s Theater production of Snow White and the 007 Dwarfs in Remsen Bird Hillside Theater.
Performers from the 2023 Occidental Children’s Theater production of Snow White and the 007 Dwarfs in Remsen Bird Hillside Theater. 

With a large library of originals—from Sleeping Beauty’s Monster Truck Rally (1996) to Snow White and the 007 Dwarfs (2023)—“I want to make sure that I get these plays published so that other places can do them,” Angell says. “I’m also interested in turning the title stories into illustrated books, because I think that there’s a lot of physicality in our shows—and the images are all there. The children’s literature market is insanely competitive, but I’ll do that if I can.”

Angell also will remain busy working on projects for his Lincoln High School buddy and Komix Appreciation Klub co-founder, Matt Groening. In addition to serving as story editor on the five-part Netflix series Disenchantment, Angell interviewed the animators behind Futurama for a new book titled (appropriately enough) The Art of Futurama, to be published by Abrams in October.

But his heart is clearly with Occidental Children’s Theater, which has remained self-sustaining all these years without any direct funding from the College. “It probably took us six years before we really figured things out, but we’ve been solidly in the black ever since,” he says. “We’re supported by box office revenue, grants, and donations. And our summer camp tuition allows us to pay the actors more, while generating enough additional revenue so we can offer camp scholarships to kids who need them.”

Given all that, he admits, “I’m loath to go away, because I’m that little gluey part that holds things together. So much of what we do is in my head—and maybe that’s on me—but when is there time to write things down? You can’t just follow a set of rules; the experience is in your lived understanding of how to deal with whatever circumstances arise.”

While Children’s Theater draws somewhere close to 2,000 patrons to see the show at Remsen Bird Hillside Theater each summer, the numbers run much higher when you add in the touring shows. “We’ll visit a rec center and there’ll be 60 to 80 kids there, so that’s another 400 or 500 for the six shows we do. And then we do three shows at Eagle Rock Elementary in the fall because that’s where my son was going when I started the program, and that’s another 600 students.

“He’s 31 now—that’s really old,” Angell adds with a chuckle. But if he’s anything like his dad, there’s still a child inside. 

Top photo: Amanda Wagner ’16 goes airborne in the 2021 revival of The Boy Who Cried Wolfman.