The History of the Penny Theater
Noyes Children’s Library is known and loved for many special features - - musical librarians, grandparent kits, toy trains, the friendly owl over the door, and of course Penny Theater.
What is Penny Theater? Penny Theater has a long and rich history that began in Victorian England, but in Montgomery County, Maryland, Penny Theater is a homegrown art form used to adapt classic children’s books to a tabletop-size theater with lights, scenery, props, characters, and other elements characteristic of live theater.
“A Penny Plain and Two Pence Colored”
Described in detail in an 1884 essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Penny Plain and Two Pence Colored,” Victorian penny theaters were handheld children’s toys made of heavy paper. Figures entered the stage from the wings, attached to sticks that allowed the figures to be moved. Scenery could be added and changed. Children used their sets to tell classic children’s stories, or to animate stories they created themselves.
In the early 1970s, Marguerite Murray, a Montgomery County librarian who saw a Victorian penny theater on display at the British Museum, was inspired to adapt the penny theater format as a way to tell children’s stories to larger audiences. Early versions were made from cardboard boxes; librarians read or told the story as it was acted out on the stage.
The idea took hold and Montgomery County librarians continued to improve and refine the Penny Theaters. By the early 1980s, a Penny Theater stage could be found in every Montgomery County library. Theaters were made of wood and their size was standardized to allow libraries to share story sets. Lights were added in the form of colorful holiday bulbs mounted above the stage and as footlights, controlled by dimmable switches. Soundtracks were recorded on cassette tape, with librarians and others providing the voices of characters, narrating, and creating sound effects. Music was also added.
By the late 1980s, sets and soundtracks had been created for about 80 stories. Most were built on classic children’s picture books, but the repertoire also included longer stories, such as Macbeth, for older children.
Penny Theater at Noyes
The development of Penny Theater in Montgomery County coincided with the establishment of the Noyes Library as a model and resource for children’s library services locally, and eventually nationally. Penny Theater quickly became a central element of Noyes, with the stage occupying a prominent permanent spot in the library. The voice of the founding director of the Noyes Children’s Library, Nora Caplan, can be heard on the soundtracks of numerous Penny Theater stories (such as Mrs. Haktak in Two of Everything), as can the voices of many Noyes neighbors who were recruited to perform.
A major economic recession in the early 1990s ended the widespread use of Penny Theater in Montgomery County libraries because budget cutbacks dramatically reduced the amount of time librarians had available to prepare for programs. Enter volunteers from the Noyes Children’s Library Foundation, who began performing Penny Theater on request at any library in Montgomery County, and at schools, shelters, bookstores, and family events. Volunteers from the Foundation have reached thousands of children, performed in almost all library branches, and continue to both preserve and develop Penny Theater as a means of engaging young children in books.
Penny Theater Today
The magic of Penny Theater is still available for young Montgomery County children. The Quince Orchard Library in Gaithersburg, Maryland has a talented and dedicated group of Penny Theater volunteers, founded by former Noyes librarian Nora Caplan after her retirement. These volunteers perform popular monthly shows at the Quince Orchard Library and at the annual Gaithersburg Book Festival. They have preserved and greatly improved aging sets, and have enlisted the services of the theater department of Quince Orchard High School to remaster or completely redo soundtracks for some of the story sets. The group has also added several entirely new stories to the Penny Theater collection.
The work of the Quince Orchard volunteers is complemented by that of the Noyes Foundation, which provides Penny Theater as an outreach service that continues to be available on request, free of charge, at schools, libraries, and other venues for children throughout the greater Washington region.
• The Robert Louis Stevenson essay on Penny Theater can be found here: http://www.online-literature.com/stevenson/memories-and-portraits/13/
• Penny Theater has been used in modern times in a variety of forms for entertainment, storyboarding, and production design by luminaries such as Steven Spielberg, Ralph Fiennes, and Orson Welles. Click HERE for a description of the recent creative use of a Penny Theater-style technique by award-winning children’s author/illustrator Brian Selznick:
• Archived instructions and specifications for building a Penny Theater like those built for Montgomery County libraries in the 1980s are HERE. This is an older document that would have been available to the public in the 1970's.
• List of Stories That Can be Performed as Penny Theater
Arthur's Christmas Cookies
Frog and Toad - Garden
George and Martha
Gilberto and the Wind
Halley Comes to Jackson
It Hardly Seems Like Halloween
Little Red Hen
Mr Willowby's Christmas Tree
Potato Pancakes All Around
Princess and Froggie
Sam Who Never Forgets
Tale of a Turnip
Three Billy Goats Gruff
Three Little Pigs
Two of Everything
Very Hungry Caterpillar
Where the Wild Things Are
Who's in Rabbit's House