Children’s Theater

March 5, 2019

Written by Rachel McCoy


DEFINITION: Relating to plays and acting; Very sudden or noticeable, or full of action and excitement

Shakespeare famously said “All the world’s a stage.” Had he been to St. Joseph, he might have added “and wow, these kids seriously have it made.”

Why? Because youth in St. Joseph have several high-energy, innovative and diverse stages to build their skills and confidence from early childhood through early adulthood. It’s a uniquely rich and comprehensive children’s theater environment, envied by cities both smaller and larger than St. Joseph.

From preschool to high school, St. Joseph’s youth can perform, run the lights, work on production, set building, directing and more across four different but complementary programs – the Robidoux Resident Theater, the St. Joseph School District Fine Arts Institute, Creative Arts Productions and the Performing Arts Association’s Missoula Children’s Theater.

Theater for youth continues to take “center stage” in St. Joseph, with good reason.

“Children’s theatre is so important because it teaches so much more than just theatre,” says Lindsay Prawitz, Program Director, Robidoux Resident Theatre. “While the students are learning the craft of theatre and putting a show together, they are also learning team-building skills, cooperation and problem solving (because you never know what could go wrong with live theatre). They learn understanding, great empathy, listening and focus, and I could go on and on.”

When she does expand the conversation, Prawitz explains that there’s so much more going on than acting and creating. “It’s scientifically proven that music helps with skills like math and focusing, so while they are learning their songs for shows like ‘Lion King Jr.,’ they are also stretching that brain muscle. It’s also a fabulous platform for kids who are not athletically inclined to find a ‘team’ to be part of,” she says.

Darren Verbick, Curriculum Advisor, St. Joseph School District, agrees and adds that there are even more benefits. “Children that participate in drama programs experience improved reading comprehension and typically are more engaged in learning. It increases their self-confidence when they take risks in rehearsal and when they learn to trust their ideas and abilities on stage when performing,” he says. “This confidence typically carries over to all aspects of their lives moving forward.”

In fact, St. Joseph could be considered one of the most forward-thinking cities of its size in terms of using theatrical arts to build students’ confidence and expand their skill sets. Children’s theater education in St. Joseph extends into the classroom all year long, and continues to grow in participation, its volunteer base and community engagement.

In a snapshot view, here’s what that looks like:

Robidoux Resident Theater

The Robidoux Resident Theatre (RRT) offers Theatre Academy, a year-long course curriculum that spans preschool through high school and includes instruction across performance, stage prep, choreography and production. Students learn to coordinate and produce a show all on their own as a highlight of the Academy. In the summer months, the popular Summer Music Camp offers two complete stage performances brought from play book to full center stage in two-week intervals. (Shows are typically Broadway musical productions created for children, such as Willy Wonka Jr., and Lion King Jr. Disney’s Aladdin Jr., and in summer 2019, it’s Mary Poppins Jr. and The Little Mermaid, Jr.).

Play Days provide theater education and workshops on days the schools are closed. For older students, Jr. Players is an advanced acting troupe for those who have prior experience in an RRT education program, or in another arts organization. They work together to manage everything across the production and technical aspects of theater.

“Community theatre is so important in the digital age because it’s teaching communication skills away from students’ mobile devices. The local theater organizations here share good relationships and work together. We all believe that when a child finds where they belong and excels at something, usually they start finding everything else in life a little easier … and they may start excelling in those other parts as well,” says Prawitz.

Increasing interest and demand in children’s programs has built closer community and neighborhood connections, too. In April of 2018, RRT purchased the B’Nai Sholem Temple at 615 S. 10th St., built in 1932. It is being repurposed into a new 12,000-square foot performing arts center, including the crown jewel, a 300-seat venue named the Ruby Theatre. Called “The Ruby,” families participating in RRT educational programs can look forward to curtain calls in this historic and inspiring space – an exciting addition to existing stage venues across the city.

St. Joseph School District Fine Arts Institute

Summer days shine even brighter for students, thanks to the St. Joseph School District Fine Arts Institute. The Institute packs a lot of hands-on learning into a short time span, featuring two theater programs held at local schools during summer school hours.

“In just 16 half days, the students from across the city go from not knowing each other or the show material to singing, dancing and acting together as friends to pull off a full-scale musical,” says Verbick. “It’s very impressive.”

In the spirit of self-direction and expression, the students are, says Verbick, “in charge of everything” for each show. “The adults are there to help supervise and help if needed – but it really is the kids’ show, and it’s glorious.”

He says another element of youth theater in St. Joseph that makes it so “uncommon” is the level of inclusiveness. “From day one, we let the kids know they are ‘in’ the production. We do have auditions for parts, etc., but we also recognize that some students shine best behind the scenes. That may include building sets, creating props or costumes, and we have a place for them.”

The appeal and the outcomes span far beyond what happens on the stage or behind the scenes. “Drama demands self-discipline and self-control of its participants. You absolutely figure out how to problem solve problems on the fly,” says Verbick. “This is both an emotional and physical outlet for students that allows them to safely express their feelings, explore their imagination, demonstrate their creativity and have some fun, too. There’s nothing quite like it.”

In response to interest from older students for more in-depth programs, Project Improv is a long-form improvisation workshop for high school students. Students learn how to make a free-flowing multiple scene show, with a showcase performance at the end. Verbick says that the district’s Fine Arts Institute has spanned 11 years, and older students who participated as young children often return to volunteer.

“It is a joy to watch. If this program were not so highly rewarding, the older kids would not even consider coming back. But they do.”

Creative Arts Productions (CAP)

For more than 40 years, Creative Arts Productions has encouraged students to think critically and make creative choices, while continually stressing the importance of teamwork. The summer program is open to students after third grade and extends through their senior year of high school. At the end of the four-week camp experience, students take the stage for two public performances at the historic Missouri Theater. (For summer 2019, the show will inspire popular holiday fun and comedy with ELF the Musical Jr.).

Performing Arts Association – Missoula Children’s Theater

Founded in 1979, the St. Joseph Performing Arts Association (PAA) brings some of the world’s finest actors, musicians and dancers to the historic Missouri Theatre year-round. However, one of the most popular and longest-running highlights of PAA is the annual Missoula Children’s Theater Residency program.

This theater residency program has been connecting children to theater since the 1980s – and it’s one powerful and memorable week. Auditions held on a Monday for school-aged students. By Saturday, a full-scale musical production is produced by a professional actor and a director featuring more than 50 local students. During the Missoula week, three theatre-style workshops are also held featuring several topics.

Not only is the program a much-loved creative outlet, it’s a demonstration of the community’s support for children’s theater. The Missoula Children’s Theatre Residency comes to St. Joseph youth through PAA, and is part of a global program whose mission is to boost creativity in individuals all over the world through community-driven performing arts experiences.

Long after the last curtain call, children’s theater in St. Joseph sparks many students’ lifelong love of performance and production. Many go on to audition for roles in St. Joseph’s award-winning community theater shows. This includes performing alongside seasoned community actors at the historic Missouri Theater, or up-close venues like the Landing, a dinner theater venue in the downtown area – while getting involved as volunteers, too.

Prawitz offers a closing thought that captures what youth theater means to St. Joseph across all the organizations, families and volunteers. “My absolute favorite thing about a children’s show is the bowing at the end. The kids feel proud of what they have accomplished. The applause is happening and they are standing in the bright lights, and you can see it on their face. They belong. They love it. They are proud of themselves, and in turn, we are proud of them. For a short while, the world melts away and all that is left is a beautiful piece of art that kids have created.”

Even Shakespeare couldn’t have said it better.


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