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Entertaining imagination

PACE, a children’s theater group, aims to boost self-esteem and teamwork skills while providing a stage for self-expression
Thursday, February 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:26 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The stage is set for children in this town — Columbia is rich with performing arts groups and classes for young people. The number of adults and children dedicated to furthering theater education hints that theater’s effect extends well beyond the curtain call.

Columbia’s new performing arts group, Performing Arts in Children’s Education, translates theater experiences into lessons that permanently influence a child’s personality and identity. Children, parents and child psychologists are lauding these groups for their positive lessons for participants.

Even though Columbia is saturated with children’s theater, it doesn’t mean the demand has been completely satisfied.

In December, Deborah Baldwin and Angela Howard, the co-artistic directors at PACE, set out to see if their idea for a new children’s theater company in Columbia was feasible.

“We talked about doing this for a long time,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin and Howard have been involved in Columbia theater for many years. Baldwin teaches drama at Smithton Middle School, and Howard teaches at Heritage Academy. Both have taught and acted in other Columbia performing groups.

“We wanted to do the same kind of work we had been doing, which is working primarily with kids,” Howard said. “We didn’t want to just expose them to theater, we wanted to put them in it. We want them to get their hands dirty, play, learn about it.”

Baldwin and Howard began to contact people last December about creating a new theater group. Soon they had a board to oversee their decisions, a building to hold classes and instructors. A few months later, nine classes are under way with 90 students.

Learning your lines is only the beginning

Columbia’s continued growth of children’s performing arts groups indicates that these groups are making an impression on children. The depth of that impression extends beyond the surface: Children are learning more than just memorization skills.

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“To outsiders, our kids look like little actors up on stage getting attention from an audience,” said Gina Poulton, a theater parent. “It’s so much more than that. The work behind the scenes forces the kids to recognize that there are other people in their world and together they can accomplish so much. Many adults have not had that lesson yet.”

There is no ‘I’ in cast

Parents and teachers of theater students said teamwork is a major lesson in the children’s performance.

“Theater teaches kids cooperative learning,” Baldwin said. “They learn to work with other people really well because they have to do it to perform.”

The lessons in teamwork even affect people later in life. Phil Howard, an MU student and PACE instructor, has benefited from the teamwork involved in a production.

“You feel more comfortable around people and learn how to read people and understand what kind of person you are talking with,” Howard said. “This has helped me more times than I can imagine.”

Child psychologist Michael Scott said these types of interactions help children, especially 5- to 8-year-olds, learn positive interaction skills they can carry with them through life.

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“The more children are involved with peers, the more confidence they have problem solving, communicating and interacting with people,” Scott said.

Only someone who has shared your spotlight can share your passion

Although students may not realize teamwork will lead to better communication and social skills, they know they are building unique relationships.

“I have a lot more inside jokes and there is a lot more I can tell my friends from theater,” said ninth-grader Amie Wells. “I feel close to them — we just connect.”

Through these friendships, theater students can see how this activity affects their personalities.

“Most of my friends in theater act the way they do when they’re doing theater,” said fourth-grader Alex Hoffmeister. “Most of my friends at school are usually shy.”

Pretending to be someone else tells you more about who you are

In addition to having genuine friendships, Baldwin said playing the role of someone else helps children figure out who they are.

“These children get a much better self-concept,” Baldwin said. “When you’re in a play, you have to figure out a character, but to do that you have to know yourself first.”

“My favorite thing about doing theater is self-expression,” said Izzie Baldwin, a 10th-grader and Deborah’s daughter. “I’m the most myself that I ever am when I’m doing a performance.”

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Baldwin said learning self-expression through performing benefits children of all backgrounds.

“At-risk students can really relate to theater because it is so expressive, so the at-risk students are very successful at it because they need that,” Baldwin said. She referred to Sandy Brice Heath’s 10-year Stanford study of at-risk students and the effects of different extra-curricular activities on their lives. The study found art-based programs helped at-risk childrenwith communication, , complex thinking skills and conveying thoughts and beliefs.

Failure teaches more than perfection

While they have many students,Howard and Baldwin know not all of these children will become professional actors. They do believe, however, that performing will benefit them.

“We’re not trying to make them Broadway stars,” Howard said. “But, can we make them better citizens? Can we make them better friends? Better workers? I mean, these kids know what it is to work — really work.”

Baldwin said facing the challenges of putting on a production is a good way to learn to keep trying.

“It teaches them resiliency in the face of failure,” Baldwin said. Whenever something goes wrong, you have to just stand up and try again.”

Lucas Mann, an eighth-grader participating in PACE, agreed.

“The main thing I’ve learned in theater is to leave all your fears behind in whatever you do,” he said.

The show must go on

Given that theater performances are eventually done live, Howard said being flexible is “the most valuable lesson” she has learned from theater.

Collette Wagner-Mann, the mother of Danielle and Lucas, said she hopes her children benefit from learning this flexibility through performing arts.

“The flexibility one needs to succeed in performing arts — like script changes, cast changes, scene changes, etc. — can help one be more adaptable to changes which occur in life, both sought-after changes and changes forced on us,” Wagner-Mann said.

Parents said watching the performances builds a nice sense of community among the adults who have come to watch their children perform.

“After a show, all the parents are so proud and talking and outgoing about the performance,” Scott said. “It’s really rather sweet.”

A long run is the true sign of success

Aside from PACE, Columbia residents have many more opportunities to be involved in local theater. Examples include:

Theater Reaching Young People and Schools, which began its mission to “teach, reach and inspire through the magic of theater” five years ago, said TRYPS artistic director, Jill Womack.

“Our students have the opportunity to act alongside our professional artists and star in their own productions,” Womack said.

The Maplewood Barn Community Theater is another place to gain acting experience. Begun in 1973, it uses the outdoors to set the stage for performances and classes for the public.

The Columbia Entertainment Company is a community theater program with a section for children. It is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Additionally, schools in Columbia, from elementary to higher education, also offer theater classes and programs for children.

“If there is one town in Missouri where kids have opportunities to go beyond regular activities,” Scott said, “it is Columbia.”


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