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The cast of Salt Lake Acting Company's "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" will be facing one of the toughest crowds in town: your kids.

"Kids are honest," said Dustin Bolt, who stars as Mouse. "If you're not entertaining them, they'll let you know. They're flopping around and fidgeting. At least the adults will keep it together, maybe fall asleep."

There's not much chance of kids dozing during SLAC's second annual children's theater production. "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," based on the children's book by Laura Joffe Numeroff and adapted by Jody Davidson, is about a small boy who turns his house upside-down as he frantically tries to please a hungry mouse.

"I think it's almost twice as hard" as acting for adults, said director Penelope Marantz Caywood, who also directs the University of Utah's youth theater program. "The actors who are in the ensemble have to be super-generous with each other. It's not like you can go and work on your own character and come back with your character figured out. It's a much more collaborative type of acting."

Caywood agrees with Bolt about that unpredictable audience factor. "You just never know where they're going to go, so the actors really have to be present at all times."

Which isn't to say that children's theater is fundamentally different. "Both adults and kids thrive on storytelling," said Michael Gardner, who stars as the generically named Boy. "The difference is that kids don't need all the unnecessary details all the time. They like to fill in the blanks themselves.

"Sometimes children's theater decides to take away the imagination. They spell it all out for you. Kids can still be entertained by that, but I think they have a better time when we let them experience the show themselves."

Which takes a lot of work. "We've taken the content really seriously. We keep referring back to the book and these guys are really going, 'Would the mouse really do this?' " Caywood said. "So it's hard. It's like, 'I will try to ground everything I possibly can in reality.' "

During three weeks of rehearsals, the cast asked that question a lot. "If you can't justify every action and movement, kids will call you out on it," said Gardner, the father of a son about to turn 5. His son knows when something isn't honest.

Children don't demand as much in the way of backstory and "intricacies of relationship among all the characters," Gardner said. "But the physicality, the commitment to everything that you do, is the same. Every action has to be exciting and important."

"Just like it is in a kid's life," Caywood interjected. "Every decision is really important. I have a 3-year-old, and if she can't have what she wants at that moment, it's like life or death for her. So these guys have to really be on their toes."

The goal at SLAC is to treat children's theater just as seriously as it does its other shows. So, as with "Go Dog Go" last year, it hired professional actors and a professional director and used the same production designers and crew.

"I'm surprised how sometimes children's theater gets relegated to second-class citizen in the arts world," Caywood said. "So I was really delighted when SLAC started doing some children's theater. It takes real actors and real directors who could get jobs anywhere. And they just have to be extra good."

'If You Give a Mouse a Cookie'

Salt Lake Acting Company presents a stage version of the popular children's book.

When • Dec. 3-5, 9-12, 16-19, 21-23 and 26; curtain is at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, and noon and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Where • SLAC, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $10-$25 (with $1 additional fee for online reservations), available at 801-363-7522, or at the box office.