Family movies of Tatro creator Will Barrios would show a young boy creating a stage out of the living room, using sheets as curtains, orchestrating a fully realized, one-man show with lighting, music, and a complete storyline. Barrios was able to parlay this passion into a career, becoming a Prop Coordinator for regional and off-Broadway shows and Shopper and Assistant Prop Coordinator on Broadway shows, including Kinky Boots, If/Then, and Rocky, among many others. I recently spoke with Barrios about turning his early childhood passion and adult career into creating a toy for children to explore the wonders of theater creativity.
How did you get involved in theater?
My first real, true theater performance was in a preschool production of Where the Wild Things Are. I played the lead role of “Ivy” of the forest. I had this Peter Pan type outfit, wearing green tights and ivy wrapped around me. While we were in rehearsals, my aunt came into town and my parents pulled me from that production to be with her while she was visiting. My mom says that I have always loved and been drawn to theater ever since that show because I never got the chance to actually do the performance.
So it became the pursuit of a dream interrupted.
This void from childhood that I need to fill everyday with musical theater songs [laughing]. After that experience, I was in a community theater production of Godspell at 9 years old. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences, to this day, of my life. I think anybody who has done Godspell has experienced that this show just creates such a sense of community and a bond; you are latched for life. I think getting the opportunity to do a show like that showed me what theater is all about, community and family. You leave each show behind but you never really leave that family behind.
You got started in theater, had a career working backstage in New York and on Broadway and recently made the leap to this new venture. What was the genesis of Tatro?
Tatro is the world’s first modern durable toy theater for kids. It all started when I was that theater kid back in Colorado around the time I did Godspell. I loved the depth of expression and imagination that I got from theater but I never really found it in any toys that I had. I would grab linens at home and staple them to ceiling in the living room to create wings and then I would do dinner theater for my parents but I would have to tear down the room to do this.
I found the idea for the toy watching a science show one day. They were illustrating a concept using two magnets on either side of a surface moving together. I wondered what if that surface was a stage, I could build characters and sets on the magnets. So I got a purple box, put in a floor where I could run a magnet with my hand underneath. I would go to the music store and play cast albums while I created these shows in my theater and would add in scene change music. From that first iteration, I created a more advanced version, including elements such as an elaborate fly system, a lighting grid with 4 or 5 different rows of lighting and little canisters with gels on them, the whole lighting board set. Tatro is a more simplified version of that.
It was an organic genesis, born out of passion.
It absolutely was passion. For a 10-year-old to find something to latch onto like that was an incredible experience. I was so into it that I would forget to eat, my parents would almost have to slide food under the door. I would imagine these different colors to the music, the designs I could see in my head, what the storyline would be, the emotional feeling I would get from it. I would start drawing and painting the sets, creating this whole world.
It’s incredible that this was so innate in you that you became the entire creative team! Is that something that you hope children will get from playing with Tatro?
When you really study theater, you learn a lot about collaboration. I went to school at Fordham University in New York City for Theater Design and Production. There I learned that when you’re a good collaborator, you become a better person. Whether it’s playing by themselves or in a group, children will be learning different skill sets as well as the various roles in theater such as the set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, all of these different departments in theater that come together to create a show. One kid can be the director, another kid can video tape it on their phone, and all of them work as a group to create this community.
I just did some product testing at a local kid’s gym in New Orleans. This is the first time I got out to really test it with children, I didn’t know what the response would be. Well, those kids played with it for almost an hour with minimal interaction and guidance from me. The way they were able to work together collaboratively was incredible. Towards the end of the hour, there was this shy kid off to the side. One of the other kids came around, who was one of the most vocal and energetic. He grabbed one of the characters, placed it on the stage and said, “My character is going to go find his room!” He continued to give voice to his character, saying, “I’m lost, I can’t find my room”. The girl who was shy put her character on the stage and said, “I can help you find your room. Let’s find your room together.” Not only had the girl been reserved when she started, but these were two kids who did not know each other at all and here they were, working together collaboratively.
Why do you believe that play is important?
I was talking with people about getting children away from technology and back to tangible, physical toys. It’s completely relevant because there is a lot of tech right now, but that isn’t the only impetus for Tatro. So I started thinking about when I was a kid that there was a problem that I innately solved with creating this toy. What I realized was the problem that I was solving was finding a means for self-expression. The only way I found that was through all of the benefits that theater provides. What kids get out of this is being able to express themselves in a lot of different ways. I have been talking to therapists on how they can use it clinically, an autism coach on ways she can use it to help her clients. That became my mission with the company, that we seek to help others to express themselves and their imagination through theater play.
Why create this as a 3-dimensional toy as opposed to a program that kids can do on a tablet?
When I was designing this I realized that the joy I got from it was to touch and create and build. I had to figure out how to transfer that joy to another kid in this new version of it. It’s so important to have those real tangible objects you can touch, feel and move and explore spatial relationships. Using design to think critically and problem solve. You can do that with an app, but to physically pick up and touch those elements, to have them bounce off of each other is very different than just touching something on a screen.
We were speaking earlier about collaboration. Has your experience of developing this toy been more a solitary or a collaborative experience?
In some ways, it has been fairly solo for me. I think part of that is that when I decided that I was going to start a business around this little toy, I was in Los Angeles with a prototype in the corner of my room. I sold everything and moved back home to work on it.
In other ways, it has been an experience of working with others. I’m slowly building a family here again, and by family I mean business-wise with the company and things like moms groups. Probably around 3 or 4 months into it, I brought in a friend of mine who is the illustrator, Jeff Hinchee. He’s a Broadway scenic illustrator, he’s done a bunch of shows on Broadway, he’s working on Frozen right now. His illustrations are just beautiful.
When I think of collaboration, I also think of all of the people working with me, the business family. People I can call up on the phone if I have an issue or a question. Connections with people out there who are a part of the process and development of Tatro. Every single person who has connected me with someone else or has made suggestions on marketing or things like that, they are all a part of this family. Sometimes I feel like I am doing it solo but I have this amazing support and community around me.
The way that you are approaching creating this as a product has a lot to do with coming from the collaborative world of theater. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you are finding yourself so interwoven with others.
When I was in the middle school and high school plays, my director would always give the same speech. On opening night she would always say, “Up until this point, it’s been my show, I’ve been the one at the helm. Tonight and through to the close of this run, this is your show. You’re in charge and this is all you.” I am so excited to release this. Once it is in kids’ hands, I may have created this toy, but it now belongs to them.
What’s next for Tatro?
From the outset I have been building my audience, through social media and marketing, ensuring that we have an audience that is following the journey. I think through social media, we have built a world that is providing an inside peek in the development process. My next step will be starting going to manufacturers and getting quotes in order to produce. I will be launching this as a Kickstarter campaign on Monday, November 13th to cover the costs for the first run of manufacturing, which I’m really excited about. Not just to get the money to fund producing it but to have fun, get people involved, to get people’s feedback and voices out there.
From there, I am going to continue building my audience. I will do further pre-sales, outside of the crowdfunding campaign. As we start next year, I will start going to trade shows. I’m looking to BroadwayCon, not even as a vendor but as an attendee to get my feet on the ground, reconnect with a lot of the people I already know out there to continue to build that audience.
Who is this toy for?
Because this toy is for everyone, I have actually had difficulty narrowing it down and really focusing it on one segment. So I started focusing on women and moms, parents in general of children ages 6-12 who participate in the arts. That has proven to be my most obvious customer segment. Outside of that, when I did the customer validation, I got a lot of responses from therapists, counselors, special educators, community theaters, people who do programs in underserved school systems. These are all different market segments that I had taken note of out but there are so many opportunities, not just for kids already involved in the arts. It can be used in community theaters to illustrate blocking but also programs in autism to high school students who absolutely loves theater and wants to be able to create Cinderella or Hamilton at home.
I’m just flashing back to being in high school, seeing my first show on Broadway and how much I would have loved to have been able to recreate Phantom of the Opera on a toy theater set.
One parent I showed this toy to, she played with it and said, “If I had this toy as a kid, I would have known at a young age that it was okay to pursue theater. I’m just now realizing how important theater is and was to me.” I do have my target market to start but there are so many people who can enjoy Tatro. It goes back to the benefits of playing. When I was testing this last week with parents, we turned around and there were 3 parents and 3 kids around this toy, just playing together, communicating and talking.
Play is the work of childhood and this toy allows children to fully explore. For my fellow child therapists, what a great tool to have in your office, allowing patients to literally be the director of their own story. For my fellow parents, especially those of the Newsies-loving, Frozen-obsessed, or Hamilkids, what a fun toy for your children to have their own stage, sets, and actors. To find out more about Tatro, you can visit their website. Check out the Kickstarter campaign for information on how to get an early discount. You can follow what is happening with Tatro on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @theatermakertoy.