Shannon Whitford doesn't usually stand out in a crowd. She's quiet and shy. But once she gets on stage, that timidity disappears.
She recently had a chorus role in her elementary school spring play and loved it. Whitford is one of many quiet children in Middle Tennessee who find that theater brings you out of yourself. And for outgoing kids, Middle Tennessee offers numerous ways for them to strut their stuff in the spotlight!
In Williamson County alone, performance groups for children are alive and well. The county has the Bravo Creative Arts Center presenting High School Musical this month. At Jan Williams School of Music and Theatre this month, a joint musical theater venture between the Boiler Room Theatre and the Act Too Players will see kids and teens performing in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Upcoming productions for this group include Honk and The Princess and the Pea. And the annual summer musical theater camps at Brentwood’s Towne Centre Theatre for kids ages 6 – 17 (which culminate in a live production) gets kids excited. Fourteen-year-old Alex Day performed with the group last summer.
“It was really, really, fun,” she says. “And I made lots of new friends,” she adds.
In Nashville, several community theaters work with children: this month, the Street Theatre Company presents a summer production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the conclusion of a summer camp for kids ages 8 – 18. In Rutherford County, rehearsals are underway for Aladdin, Jr., starring a cast of more than 40 kids. So theater for kids is happening … But what is it about theater that draws kids in? Why do they love to perform so much?
“I think that children still long to ‘play pretend,'” says Sondra Morton-Chaffin, general operations manager at the Boiler Room and theater arts director at Jan Williams School of Music and Theatre. “There is less opportunity with all the video games and endless television shows for kids to exercise their play acting skills. We all like to ‘be’ someone else. Doing theater fulfills that need,” she adds.
Bravo Creative Arts Co-Founder/Director Lissa McHugh adds that kids spend countless hours dancing, singing and pretending either in front of mirrors at home or in formal lessons. “They need an outlet to use those talents,” she says. “If you ask the kids why they do it, they say, ‘Because it’s fun!'”
Many local theater experts agree that performing in theater offers children life-long benefits.
“I’ve seen kids make friends, build self-esteem, learn to communicate better, be more observant and memorize things for school,” says Terry Womack, director of the Sunshine Players, operated by the Cultural Arts Division of Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation for the past 20 years.
“Being on stage and performing is the most vulnerable thing someone can do,” says Morton-Chaffin. “Once children step out of the comfort zone and perform, their self-esteem rises. They realize that they can try other things and often do,” she adds.
One of drama’s greatest gifts is that it brings children together as a team … even if they don’t know each other. Casts become like families and a brand new experience occurs with the launch of each new show.
“To put on a successful show, youth must learn to get along with others, appreciate each person’s role, understand commitment, practice patience and teamwork … all important life skills,” says McHugh.
While many kids have natural gifts for acting and singing, others do not. Groups operating for kids alone will not turn them away, but if your child aims for a community or professional production, it’s not always as easy as just showing up.
“Most auditions require reading from the script, so being familiar with the show is always helpful,” says Clay Hillwig, director for Circle Players, Nashville’s oldest community theater which regularly casts children. “For musicals, they are typically required to prepare an upbeat song and read plus do dance/movement exercises to determine dance ability,” he adds.
So what do directors look for when casting children? “I am always looking for energy and strong character choices,” Hillwig says. “As well as the ability to take direction.”
Time and Volunteering
Busy parents, take heed. When kids are in a show, there’s quite a bit of commitment involved. Productions are a lot of work, and your child will have to attend many rehearsals. Make room in your schedule – once your child is in a show, practice isn’t really an “optional” activity. Taking kids out early, dropping them off late, or skipping rehearsals entirely causes problems for the rest of the cast.
For children’s programs like Bravo, Act Too, Sunshine Players and others, time commitments vary.
“We meet once a week for an hour-and-a-half. The week of the show we add tech rehearsals, and the kids are required to work on their own between rehearsals,” says Morton-Chaffin.
Bravo, on the other hand, generally requires four hours a week until the performance week, which includes dress rehearsals. At that point, McHugh says the time commitment grows to 20 hours for the week. A community theater group requires more hours and often weekends, and every group depends on volunteers to make their productions successful.
Parents are often asked to volunteer in some capacity to assist with a show their child is in.
“Parents are asked to assist their children in learning their lines,” says Womack, “and we also like parents to volunteer to help with sets, props, costumes, backstage help and marketing.”
“We could not have musical theater shows without our amazing parent and community volunteers,” says McHugh. “The parents have as much fun as the kids. It’s a great opportunity for them to work with other parents, be around their kids and give to the community,” she adds.
Whether they land a starring role or get cast in the chorus, the local theater arena is a wonderful way for children to experience great joy and to equip them with useful lifelong skills along the way.
Bravo Creative Arts Center
2227 Hillsboro Road, Franklin; 599-5314
Williamson County’s newest performance group for children of all ages offers full theater productions throughout the year. Rehearsals are held on-site; performances are at different off-site venues. This month: High School Musical runs July 10 – 26.
Center for the Arts
110 College St., Murfreesboro; 904-2787
Drama camps in the spring; performance opportunities for children and adults. This month: Aladdin, Jr. (starring kids ages 13 – 18) runs July 9 – 19.
Jan Williams School of Music and Theatre
500 Wilson Pike Circle, Brentwood; 371-8086
The Act Too Players at Jan Williams School of Music and Theatre and the Boiler Room Theatre team up to offer a variety of opportunities for kids year round. Summer Performance Camps for kids are held at Jan Williams School of Music; performances are at the Boiler Room at The Factory at Franklin, 230 Franklin Road, Bld. 6, Franklin. See Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory July 31 – August 2.
Metro Arts in the Parks Theater
Centennial Arts Activity Center, 2500 West End Ave.
(Southwest corner of Centennial Park); 862-8439
One-week summer theater intensives in June (ages 14 -17) and July (ages 6 – 10 and 11 – 13). Three eight-week programs take place in the summer, fall and winter/spring that offer training that culminates in public performances.
Murfreesboro Little Theatre
702 Ewing Ave., Murfreesboro; 893-9825
Offers theatrical workshops for kids ages 6 and older, July 6 – 24, 8:30 – 11:30 a.m., in addition to adult productions with roles for children.
Nashville Children‘s Theatre
25 Middleton St., Nashville; 254-9103
Tennessee’s award-winning professional theater group comprised of adult actors providing theater to kids and families. Saturday drama classes in the fall, spring break camps, summer camps and educational opportunities for homeschoolers and other groups year round.
Street Theatre Company
Summer Youth Drama Camps for ages 5 – 9 or 10 – 16. A Youth Performance production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (with a cast of kids ages 8 – 18) is by audition only and runs July 24, 25, 31 and Aug. 1.
Star Bright Players
1120 Hillsboro Road, Franklin; 790-5719, ext. 18
Williamson County Parks and Recreation sponsors this award-winning children’s theater group for ages 5 – 18. Children are encouraged to attend open auditions throughout the year for musicals. Typically, 60 – 80 kids are cast per show. Performances usually take place at The Factory at Franklin or at a school facility in Williamson County.
Sunshine Players at The Theatre at Patterson Park
521 Mercury Blvd., Murfreesboro; 893-7439, ext. 33
The Sunshine Players are part of the Cultural Arts Division of Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation, offering theatrical training and performance opportunities throughout the year for ages 4 – 17. The next production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, takes the stage Aug. 14 – 16.
Towne Centre Theatre
136 Frierson St., Brentwood; 221-1173
Brentwood’s newest community theater offers Musical Theater Mini Camps for kids which culminate in a performance on stage.