"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
---Walter Elias Disney

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Long Time Coming

Once Upon A Time.....

There was a woman fond of directing large, all-ages cast community theater musicals. This woman also happened to be a mom, a home schooling mom, of two young boys, the older of whom was already showing signs of serious theatrical talent and interest. When choosing her musicals, she had to take into account the difficulty in finding tween and teen boys willing and interested to act in a show. She had an idea that she hoped would introduce more children to live theatre at an earlier age than was the current norm in her theatrical home. She hoped to bring in children, and hopefully a good, solid number of boys, and allow them to experience theater from an actor's perspective without the pressure of auditions. These children would grow in skill in a supportive, safe, non-judgmental environment and would perhaps be more likely to remain involved into their teenage years. This idea was called Let's PLAY!.

The Let's PLAY! Children's Theatre Workshop was proposed as a series of weekend classroom sessions for children from 4-12 years old exploring song, dance, acting, improvisation and theatrical terminology and traditions through the vehicle of fun exercises and games. The workshop was to utilize older children in technical and backstage roles such as assistant director, stage manger, light and sound tech and set and costume design and construction. At the end of the series of classes, the children would mount a short "KIDS" show, a one act performance designed for young actors. "Aladdin, KIDS" was included in the original proposal with the intent to charge minimal admission and ask for food donations in honor of the "street rat" main character.

The theater mom director, fresh off the heels of a hugely successful summer production of The Wizard of Oz, brought her idea to her theater home's board of directors. They listened politely and told her they'd discuss it later in the meeting and let her know. She left. Also at this meeting was a man very green to the world of theater, having been introduced into it during the aforementioned Wizard of Oz production. This was the final board meeting of the year and he was to become a board member the following month and was attending to observe and get up to speed on board business. When discussion of the Let's PLAY! workshop began, he was shocked to find it centered around the fear that the workshop, and its director, would reflect poorly on the theater organization. The scope of the workshop was questioned and more surprising to the meeting's observer, the director's credentials were questioned. In the end he couldn't remain a quiet observer and when it looked as though the proposal would die, he broke protocol and prevailed upon the board to table the decision until the next meeting when they could address their concerns to the director in person. And so they did.

During the next month's meeting these concerns, including the questioning of the mom/director's credentials as a theater instructor, were voiced and discussed and argued with all interested parties present. Voices were sometimes raised, eyes were rolled, feelings were hurt, but in the end the Let's PLAY! Children's Theatre Workshop was approved. But it had been changed during discussion to win the eventual unanimous vote of approval. The teen technical and support training was dropped entirely and the license of a show to culminate the workshop experience was replaced with a "showcase" performance to be designed by the director along the lines of a recital. But the door had been opened and Let's PLAY! began.

The first session was a huge success, with a full roster of children, many boys, of varying experience levels. The classes were fun, the showcase was terrific and everyone walked away happy. More sessions followed, and a summer camp version was added. Registration day began to resemble a rock concert opening ticket sales, with people lining up in cyberspace for slots that filled within hours. It also became clear that without a license to purchase and a specific show set to build and costumes to procure, there was little on which to spend tuition money. The board, which had been chilly to the point of virtually ignoring the program, began to take notice and value it as a revenue source. This was frustrating to the director and others who truly loved and supported Let's PLAY! on its merits as theater education and the joy it brought to its students. But Let's PLAY! chugged along.

After a time, it came to pass that the observer at that first meeting found himself president of the board. And so it also came to pass that the director came to the board with what was essentially her original proposal, a workshop to include teen assistants helping on a production of a licensed musical. The first Let's PLAY! session of 2015, exactly two years after the very first session, would be the Let's PLAY! Production of Winnie the Pooh, KIDS.

Today was the final of four shows capping off that workshop experience. Every one sold more seats than we had available (we had floor seating, so everyone got in, seat or no seat). That means close to 400 people watched these 30 children sing and dance their way through the Hundred Acre Wood. The children are itching to carry the show over into NEXT weekend. We can't, another show is moving in, but we could have, I'm sure, sold another 400 tickets.

I'm a very happy guy tonight. I'm happy and proud of the children and teens and the adult leadership of Let's PLAY!. I can't put into words the respect and admiration I have for the talent and work ethic and simple love for these children and the theatrical arts embodied by Let's PLAY!'s founder and director, Jen Iapalucci. But my joy is tempered by frustration that it took two years for such an obviously needed and valuable idea to finally come into full bloom. There is no rational excuse for that, it's simply a matter of silly intra-group politics and run-away egos. This session made much more money than any previous session, but MUCH more importantly, it gave 30 children and a handful of teen leaders an experience they will never forget.

I'd love to hear some apologies, but Hell freezing over is more likely. What I can and do expect, though, is a recognition of the value of Let's PLAY! in lives affected and hearts warmed and lessons learned. Here's hoping it doesn't take any more raised voices.