Children's theater in the Salt Lake Valley just ain't what it used to be.

It's fairly common knowledge in the theater community that Xan S. Johnson's former Young People's Theatre program, because of cutbacks in staff and funding, is barely a shadow of the nationally acclaimed program it was a few years ago - despite the fact that Johnson is one of most gifted children's directors and instructors around.The U.'s Child Drama program (which evolved from the YPT) does the best it can with limited resources, but it would be nice to see Johnson's old program regain its former prestige and importance.

Elsewhere in the community, children's theater isn't exactly flourishing either. City Rep has shifted the focus of its upstairs Jester Stage space to "family" theater instead of just children's plays. And Ron Burnett has been directing a couple of plays for students of The Winner School, but usually for just one or two-night stands.

Now, Richard "Ric" Kirschner, who came up through Johnson's program at the U., and Caren Beeman have joined forces to form the new Salt Lake Children's Theatre, which they anticipate will fill the void that's been left by the former YPT.

The new company's first production will be "Hansel and Gretel," scheduled for nine performances on Feb. 14-16, with three shows each day at 10 a.m. and 2 and 7 p.m. at the Garfield Learning Center of the Salt Lake School District.

"We're starting small, but we want to do high quality productions and pay our actors," said Kirschner. "Our mission is to make the arts accessible, not only to all ages, but to all economic levels. It's getting to the point where it's difficult for parents to justify taking their kids to theater on the U. of U. campus. Most families can't afford Pioneer Theatre Company and a lot of the parents we're focusing on generally can't even afford to take their children to City Rep productions."

Admission for "Hansel and Gretel" will be $5 for adults and $3 for children - or only $2 each for groups of 10 or more.

Kirschner, who has directed "Hansel and Gretel," has his master's degree in child drama from the U. He worked and taught extensively with Xan Johnson during the past five year.

Kirschner created a model for education that was part of a pilot program at Hansen Planetarium in 1986 and also utilized at Rowland Hall, with drama used as a teaching vehicle. The Pullman, Wash., native also toured Washington state as a mime and has worked professionally, both on stage and in film, in California.

Co-director Beeman has extensive experience as a playwright, director and actress and just returned to Utah this year from four years of teaching in Germany, where she acquired some exciting educational methods and theater material.

"Hansel and Gretel" will be stylistically loose, incorporating elements of commedia del arte, Japanese kabuki theater and slapstick. Moses Goldberg's script, one of the most popular stage versions of the children's tale, is being used for the Salt Lake Children's Theatre production.

Three men and three women are in the cast. Five of the performers each portray two different characters. Rett Neale is Staggio and the Witch; Michael Robinson, 16, is Bulbov and the Father; Andrea Shipp, 10, is Gretel and Trickle; Michael Stephenson, 12, is Hansel and Bucol; Natalie Stuart is Sabrina and the Mother, and Amber Woody, 15, portrays Kiko.

Kirschner said this is "a participation play." Children in the audience will be encouraged to get involved. There'll be some problem-solving, geared to youngsters in the elementary school age group.

Also, when Hansel and Gretel are lost in the forest, the audience will be the berry bushes - and the two storybook characters will run through the audience, picking berries.

"The actors have been trained to treat the audience as the seventh member of the cast. We're heavily into improvisation and we'll act on any idea the children in the audience give us," Kirschner said.

He said that eventually, the Salt Lake Children's Theatre hopes to have two touring productions that can go into elementary school throughout the state. The company's prime affiliation is with the Salt Lake Community Education program of the Salt Lake School District, which Ann Sasich coordinates.

Theater classes for children are also being arranged through the school district. And another major project in the works is a "Stories by the Young" program in which stories written and contributed by children throughout Utah will be published and dramatized.

For information regarding these projects or tickets for "Hansel and Gretel," contact the Salt Lake Community Education office at the Garfield Learning Center, 485-6207. The school is located at 1839 S. 1500 East.

Several performances of "Hansel and Gretel" are already sold out, including the 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. performance on Thursday and the 10 a.m. performance on Friday.