On a wildly unseasonable warm, sunny February morning, about a dozen kids were stoked to head into a darkened room and talk about stories.
To start out the Youth Theater Workshop on Saturday morning Tom McEvilly asked the group, sitting in a circle under the stage lights of the Portage Center for the Arts, what their favorite stories were. Among the picks were well-known young adult picks like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, as well as “Go Set a Watchman” and a tie between “Carrie” and “Misery” from one girl in the midst of a Stephen King phase.
“What does a good story need?” McEvilly asked.
“It needs a beginning, a middle and an end,” one girl said.
“A happy ending,” one of the younger girls added. This was met by a couple other participants with an, “eh…not necessarily.”
“I like books that make me cry,” one boy said.
“Why?” a girl asked in astonishment.
Once the conversation got going, kids started getting active. First, they took turns opening to random pages of the Shel Silverstein book “Falling Up,” reading passages with random character assignments. These included: your best friend just died; you are happier than you have ever been in your life; being a high school cheerleader, a giant or you were 6 inches tall.
“Each week we’re seeing kids we haven’t seen before,” said McEvilly, co-educational director of the Children’s Theater, along with John Muir Elementary music teacher Barb Yerke. “For a lot of our kids it is a challenge because they have so many activities in addition to this — they’re doing sports, they’re doing church, they’re going to scouts, they’re going to 4-H, and they have all these options, so sneaking them in here and there is really a good thing.”
“We have week-long workshops in the spring and summer and then we do theater productions in the fall,” said Portage Center for the Arts Executive Director Heidi Royal. “And there was this huge gap between the theater productions and the springtime and Tom thought it would be a good way to bridge the gap between the productions and the workshops and keep the kids engaged and involved in the theater.”
Normally, the program would be split into two sections, with younger children in a session from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., and then older kids from 11 a.m. to noon. On Saturday, the participants from ages 9 to 15 arrived at 9:30 and spent the whole time working together.
“Theater is an interesting entity,” said McEvilly, who has focused much of his career on teaching theater arts in Madison and at Viterbo University. “When kids walk in the door they feel accepted, they feel welcomed, and the kids that have more experience help the kids that have less experience. And the kids that are shy are helped by the kids that are not so shy, and they feel that instant responsibility and bond of being kind to others that are trying to walk through this environment and they do really well.”
Kerri Bredemann got pulled into the stage-mom life after her daughter appeared in the Portage production of “The Christmas Gift.”
“We saw ‘Really Rosy’ a couple years ago and she really enjoyed it and she has seen a couple (of shows) with the school and she just really wanted to do it,” said Bredemann. “And then once you do that, you jump in with both feet, because they love it. And it’s a place where she feels comfortable — she feels like she can be herself and she’s not judged. And as a parent, they’re just very welcoming and with very open arms. It’s nice.”
The group jumped into stage games in the second half, including “wax museum,” a game where everybody on stage has to take a pose and never allow the person who is “it” see them move. The extra challenge, and advantage for Bredemann, is that it can be hard to hold character when you have a 9-year-old coming at you like Inspector Poirot.
Seeing kids coming back over time, Royal said it’s like seeing someone change from being an uncomfortable guest, trying not to touch anything, to feeling at home enough to just walk in and get a soda from the refrigerator.
“Even after a few rehearsals, we watch them grow, we watch them expand, we watch the confidence and the joy they have doing an activity in being part of a team,” said McEvilly. “Because not all our kids fit in the norm. And many of our kids do fit in the norm. Not all of our kids are athletes; not all of our kids are straight-A students. So here, no matter what you are or who you are, you’re accepted in when you walk in the door. It has always felt like home to me.”
The third of the four monthly programs will be on March 25, with the fourth in April, leading into the summer programs and productions.