PROJECT INTERACT, A GROUP OF professional adult theater artists, has been a part of the Zachary Scott Theater in Austin for more than 25 years. The group creates and performs theater for young audiences. Judy Matetzschk, the director of Project InterAct, talks about education and the arts. For those who have yet to hear about the program, tell us what it is today.

Judy Matetzschk: The children are not the actors, but they are our audience. We do two different plays each school year. We try to do something for upper elementary grades three through five for one part of the year, and then cater to the younger grade levels at another time of the year. We’re a self-contained program. We go into the schools, taking our set, costumes, and the best actors we can possibly find, and create theater for the children. In your position as director of Project InterAct, do you feel that, in comparison to the other arts, theater is more, less, or equally important as a creative outlet for children?

JM: I think in many respects that has a two-point answer—definitely equally as important, and for some children, even more important. In education we’re finding out more all the time about the different styles that children learn through. Some students are going to process information in a more active way, and theater is a great tool for children who have various learning styles. So in that respect, I think it’s more so. I also think it’s a powerful tool for using stories and metaphor to teach life lessons. If students can watch a protagonist in a play who’s their age, it can be a powerful vicarious learning experience for them. Other art forms can’t provide that. So definitely equally, and I think for some students even more. Why did Project InterAct decide to adapt and perform Diane Stanley’s Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter, which is a subverted version of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, instead of the more traditional text?

JM: We have a wonderful woman here on staff, Emily Cicchini, who is our development director and who is also a fine playwright. I knew I wanted to find a piece to develop with Emily, so I had been looking for a dramatic link to a piece of material that would be both attractive to her and to our program. I went to a book signing that Diane Stanley was having here in town, and she was promoting one of her newer picture books on Michelangelo. We got to talking about her work and she said, “Oh, I have this other book named Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter.” I was intrigued by the title. I came back to the theater center the next day, ordered a copy of the book, e-mailed Diane Stanley, and we started having an e-mail conversation. Once I saw the book, I loved the illustrations. And a lot of the story telling is through her illustrations as much as it is through the words. I was fascinated by a young, strong female protagonist—not waiting in a castle somewhere to be saved—who could be an important role model for young children, especially young girls in elementary school. It’s a message that Emily and I both really liked. So that’s how we came to that particular play. Do you think this new way of storytelling will alter the audience’s perspective of traditional fairytales or in general cause them to think in a slightly different way?

JM: I do. If we can encourage students to question the assumptions that come to them silently through literature or through watching the world around them, then we’ve done them a great service. Creating a more critically thinking society is what we’re all about. Is the next play, Jack Frost, going to have the same kind of spin as Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter?

JM: Actually it does. Once again we are working with a play about a young female protagonist who is proactive in her life. It’s a Russian Cinderella story of sorts. The young girl’s father has passed away. She finds herself in the care of an unloving, uncaring stepmother, with two nasty stepsisters. Instead of waiting for a man to come along and get her out of her situation, she goes on a journey to free her true love and herself from their dire situation. It’s a beautiful story about the power of a loving, compassionate heart overcoming some cold circumstances. The play is an allegory for the power of love. Do you have any specific examples of Project InterAct affecting the Austin community?

JM: We hear from teachers all the time after we’ve been there, and the children will still be talking about things that happened in the play. They will still be processing what they’ve seen . . . and I think that speaks to Project InterAct’s power quite a bit. What do you say to people who feel like they can’t possibly contribute to a program as extensive as Project InterAct?

JM: I think that sometimes people think it takes a whole lot to do what we do, that their gift might not be big enough, or that they might not be able to pay for 375 children to see a play. But in reality, because we are non-profit, we are in a unique position. For as little a $1.35 per child—that’s about the average price—we can take the performing arts into the schools. People think, “Oh, it’s for a whole school, I could never do that.” Well, it’s $500. And we have a lot of schools that can pay part of that. So I do a lot of creative matchmaking in this job, finding businesses, as well as individuals, with a variety of levels of giving. They may only be able to give $200, but I can match them with a school that can only pay part of the fee as well. That way we maximize the number we serve. Tell me briefly about the other children’s theater program at Zachary Scott, Project Discovery. Do both programs, Project InterAct and Project Discovery, serve the same purpose?

JM: Project Discovery is how Zach reaches out in the community to middle school and high school students. Several times each season our artistic director, David Steakley, selects plays that would be age appropriate for middle school and high school students. With Project Discovery we receive some funds from the Texas Commission of the Arts to create learning materials and to underwrite bringing middle school and high school students here. They come in and are part of our main-stage audience, and they have the full experience of coming to the theater surrounded by our other patrons. We create a study guide and an educational video that teachers can use in the classroom that help the students have a better understanding of the play, put it in a historical and cultural context, and link it to their curriculum so they can receive the most educational benefit from coming to the theater. We also have main-stage artists—our singers and our actors—who are made available to go into those classrooms. It’s a real comprehensive approach to theater outreach. Both programs seem to emphasize creativity and participation on behalf of their respective audiences. Do you think this emphasis on engaged creativity is important to the theater experience?

JM: I feel it’s vital. That’s one of the reasons why our study guide is such an important tool for us. A lot of the schools don’t have the time in their class day for the students to have that direct communication with us. We try to create a tool where teachers can ask those same probing questions in their classroom. And we have also found that many students who won’t speak out in a whole cafeteria full of students will share their thoughts in their own classroom with their teacher. And so part of what we always try to do is give teachers those probing questions to start a discussion after the play. Where do you see these programs in the future?

JM: Right now, we serve primarily a 35-mile radius around the theater center. That doesn’t seem like a large distance, but with the way Austin and Central Texas have grown, there are more than 120 public elementary schools in that radius. Our primary goal is to serve our home base, the Central Texas community, and to make these programs available regardless of students’ ability to pay. We’re finding more and more that school budgets and PTA budgets are stretched to the max, so I see our tactic in the next few seasons as thinking creatively about how to keep our access in spite of the economy. We serve approximately 46,000 elementary school students every season over a nine-month tour with the two shows that we produce. I think we will probably max out in the next few years at about 60,000. My goal within the next two to three seasons is to find ways to creatively partner with people and other organizations within the community that share our concern for the public schools and to reach that 60,000 goal. Do individuals sponsor the programs, or just businesses and educators? If they do, do you have any specific examples?

JM: I had a dear friend, who was in theater education for years, and she taught me long ago that you have to do theater education with a missionary zeal. You have to go at it like it’s any other great mission in life, and if you can’t, don’t do it, because it’s too difficult. And as the economy in Austin has tightened up, I’ve had a real revival on that. I take any opportunity I can to get in front of groups, large or small, and talk about the programs.

I was at a Barnes and Noble educators’ night recently, and after it was over, several teachers came up and got more information. I was particularly moved by one woman. She said, “What does it cost to take a play to a school?” I thought she was a teacher, so I started my regular spiel of, “Well, we can perform for 375 children for approximately $485, so about $500 is what it takes to serve a school.” Then I immediately followed up with, “But if you have a large at-risk population, know that we will work with you.”

She said, “No, no, no. I was a single mother. And for many years I did not have the resources to provide enrichment with my kids and for their school. Now my situation has changed. My children are adults, and I’m in a different place in my life.” And right there, she offered to pay for a school. She had heard what we were saying and saw the need. I believe that there are more people like her out there. And part of my job now is to go find them.