The Wonderful World of Children's Theater
Dec 09, 2013 12:19PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Unlike numerous youth who find their calling in center field, many area children have discovered their passion on center stage thanks to local children's theaters, which are working to expand arts education, improve confidence, and encourage children to simply have fun.
When Winifred Ward founded one of the first children’s theaters in the country, Children’s Theater of Evanston, Illinois, in 1925, she did it with the “double purpose of providing a worthy service to Evanston and giving the speech students a laboratory in the study of theater for youth.” Nearly 90 years later, this sentiment has spread to Maryland, where four local theater companies have a core mission of producing theater for children and by children in Anne Arundel County and on the Eastern Shore.
In Maryland’s capital, the Children’s Theatre of Annapolis stages three full productions per year, along with a variety of workshops, for ages eight to 18. In October, a nonmusical performance allows those of all ages to show off their acting chops (CTA recently debuted a locally written production of Snow White, A Grimms Brothers Fairy Tale, penned by Theatre alumnus Dylan Roche), while a teen musical in January targets ages 12 to 18. Next month’s show is Shrek, the Musical, based on the popular movie of the same name. In April, the younger kids get a chance to perform in the musical Pippi Longstocking. The Theatre also in the past year debuted a youth traveling troupe, CTA Second Stage, a group of 15 talented teens who sing and dance through a series of well-known musical numbers at local festivals, fairs, nonprofit organizations, and schools.
This year’s show, Second Stage Goes to the Movies, features numbers from movie musicals such as South Pacific, The Wizard of Oz, and Disney favorites. Its purpose is to not only showcase CTA in the community and provide entertainment to those who might not be able to travel to the Theatre, but also teach young performers about adapting and performing in new spaces.
The mainstage shows for each age group are carefully chosen by a committee to ensure they’re appropriate in both age affiliation and content, says CTA publicity co-chair Cathy Hollerbach, but they’re not always an easy pick. “We always have a lot of discussion about our shows, and this year was no exception,” she says. For example, in January 2013, the group produced Legally Blonde, a musical based on the movie of the same name. Approving the production, even though it was performed by teenagers, required director Jason Kimmell and a reading committee to “clean up” some of the more controversial material, which then had to be approved by licensing company Music Theatre International. But once the production begins rehearsals, the actors are ready to flex their theatrical muscles.
“[There’s] such a close-knit cast,” says Zeke Ouellette, Annapolis Area Christian School senior who played the role of Warner Huntington in Legally Blonde last season. In his first show four years ago, “Everyone really supported each other, and it was the foundation that built what I love about going to CTA.”
Also in Annapolis, The Talent Machine Company was founded 25 years ago by Bobbi Smith, who aimed to “not only produce musicals, but also mentor the kids in the musical theater profession,” says Lea Capps, Smith’s daughter and current owner.
The group continues to carry on Smith’s expectations of professionalism as it produces three full musicals per year with performers ranging in age from seven to 18. Last season, the organization staged the musical All Shook Up with a cast of nearly 30 youth performers.
During the summer, TMC produces both a teen and youth musical—the 2014 productions are still in discussion—but the shows put on by the company allow every cast member to feel like they are part of the Talent Machine family.
“I made the best and closest friends I’ve ever had doing Talent Machine. You really bond and become a family,” says Andrew Gordon, a former Talent Machine member of five years and current student at New York University.
The company also offers two musical theater camps for ages four to 15, as well as opportunities to perform at fairs, fundraisers, community events and parades.
The newest youth theater to arrive in our area is Chesapeake Children’s Theatre, launched in Easton in summer 2012 after co-founders Kimberly Stevens and Lori Underwood recognized a need for youth theater on the Shore. Since then, they’ve produced multiple musical productions, including Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Jr., in October, and a holiday show, Dear Santa, running this month. Every show is aimed to help the children gain self-confidence and social growth, as well as public speaking skills.
“It is a lot of hard work, but in the end you learn something so valuable that you keep with you your whole life,” says Summer Snead, who appeared in a recent production.
However, not every child or teen is ready to commit to a full musical or theatrical performance, particularly during the busy school year. In Crofton, Denise Sing’s KIDSMUSICART— formerly Kindermusic—has been providing musical programs for children for more than 17 years. The popularity of the weekly children’s music classes encouraged Sing to start a series of summer classes, which quickly transformed into a summer theater camp. These camps are mainly musical in nature, but designed to be appropriate for each age group, focusing on differing levels of vocal and theater training.
“In our studio, our focus is on the process and not the product,” says director Beth Hallworth. “Obviously the goal is performing to the greatest of our ability, but when the focus is on a positive process, one that uplifts the student not one that breaks the student down, the product takes care of itself.”
Of course, these theaters aren’t the only way a child can perform in our region. Many groups offer performing arts camps and workshops throughout the year. Some organizations, such as The Avalon Foundation in Easton, occasionally produce performances featuring children, such as The Santa Diaries, a play written by Shore locals that was performed at The Avalon Theatre last December.
GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY
In Easton, Stevens and Underwood of CCT fund the Empty Seat Fund Program, in which disadvantaged children attend the performances of CCT at no cost. This allows the children that maybe could not participate in the shows to be excited about the theater and feel like they are part of the magic. CCT also funds the Chester Scholarship, which is offered to one student per season who excels in the creative arts.
In a similar fashion, the Children’s Theater of Annapolis offers two scholarships for graduating seniors who have been active in the CTA family, but also in their communities, in the name of CTA alumna Miriam Wolfe, who was an active member of CTA before becoming the unfortunate victim in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
BENEFITS TO THE KIDS
In the world of children’s theater, there is no shortage of alumni whose lives have been touched in one way or another, learning such important values and virtues that will take them far in life, on or off the stage. But a hectic schedule might make one wonder why the kids—and their parents—come back to perform time and time again.
“Going into theater and getting up on stage can be scary, but once you do it, it’s completely worth it,” says Madison Ouellette, Arundel High School junior and sister of Zeke. “It’s a blast; you’re with the people you love, and it gets you out of your comfort zone…it allows you to be who you actually are.”
Beyond that, there are positive implications for a child’s career and overall future. “Experience in theater has been an invaluable asset to the development of my communication skills,” says Kelsey Dimka, a former Talent Machine performer and current University of Maryland student. “Public speaking is an enormous obstacle for many of my peers. I’ve found that my natural inclination to take leadership positions is the direct result of my level of comfort in front of a crowd.” The most important roles are not always the ones in front of the spotlight. As Dimka mentions, some of her most valued roles came from the ensemble, reminding her that you don’t always have to be front and center to shine.
“Put yourself out there,” Zeke advises to those considering theater. “Be confident and unafraid in what you do. Welcome the awkward situations and uncomfortable conversations…you’ll be better for it at the end of the day.”
UPCOMING SHOWSCHILDREN’S THEATRE OF ANNAPOLIS
January 10–26: Shrek the Musical,
April 4–13: Pippi Longstocking
$15 adults, $12 kids 12 and under and seniors
THE TALENT MACHINE
Summer 2013: Two musicals for teens and kids.
Show titles to be announced this spring
CHESAPEAKE CHILDREN’S THEATRE
May 31–June 1: Guys and Dolls, Jr.
March 15: E-I-E-I Oops!
March 22–23: Disney’s Aristocats Kids Teen show to be announced