Putting them through their paces

Children from Columbia, surrounding areas get chance to sport dramatic skills in productions of “Oklahoma!” and “The Wizard of Oz”
Friday, July 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:28 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tape marks on the floor outline the boundaries of the stage. Folding chairs stand in for fences, stools and even a butter churn, and the temptation to sit on them is great.

Even without props, scenery and rehearsals on the actual set — until shortly before opening night — the actors for this summer’s Performing Arts in Children’s Education productions have created two distinct shows with nothing but a script, music, choreography, directors’ guidance and their own energy and enthusiasm.

This summer, more than 80 children from Columbia and surrounding towns have the opportunity to be on stage as part of the cast of two productions put on by PACE, a newly created theater company just for youth.

“We wanted the whole focus to be on youth,” said Deborah Baldwin, co-artistic director of PACE. “We have no other agenda than what is best for them and their needs. The plays are for them and with them.”

This mission has led Baldwin and co-artistic director Angela Howard to prepare two productions simultaneously. Howard is directing “The Wizard of Oz” for second-graders through eighth-graders, while Baldwin is directing “Oklahoma!” for eighth-graders through 12th-graders.

The children help each other with lines and blocking. They fill in for absent students without being asked, and they take an active role in raising concerns about stage entrances or timing. Some of the older children assist in making costumes or are on one of the many crews. Baldwin hopes in the future to have a committee of children help select upcoming shows — to expose them to that aspect of the production as well.

The atmosphere of each production has as much individuality as the children in each cast.

In rehearsals at Christian Fellowship for “The Wizard of Oz,” pods of children giggle and skip. Some lay down pieces of the yellow brick road while others — some as young as 7 — play munchkins, trees, jitterbugs and poppies.

“We’re doing some rather unique things in terms of style,” Howard said. “We’re using bricks out of foam, laid down as part of the dance instead of having a yellow brick road painted on the stage.”

The scenery in the show will move, too, as characters carry many of the set pieces on and off stage. Although this approach offers a variety of challenges, Howard said the biggest is that some of the cast is young and new to theater, “but they learn from the more experienced cast members, who are really remarkable in their willingness to help out.”

The first week the cast learned the vocabulary of the theater and positions of the stage and of the body. Howard said she addressed the musical’s plot as well.

“We had to teach them that the story revolves around Dorothy protecting her dog, Toto, as she tries to get back to Kansas,” she said. “She makes wonderful friends along the way and learns to put others before herself. The whole story is about love and friendship.”

The concept of friendship, on the other hand, did not have to be explained. “I get to know everybody and see everyone every day,” said Emily Swenson, 14.

“I’ve known some of these people for three years only because of the plays,” said Leslie Goehl, 12.

On the makeshift set of “Oklahoma!” at Columbia United Church of Christ, cast members perfect their drawls. Girls rehearse in character shoes and skirts while boys wear cowboy boots and hats and swing lariats — all to practice walking and talking as the characters they portray on stage.

“We practice like pros because we want them to learn properly,” Baldwin said, insisting on correct footwear even without full costumes. “With their shorts and their cowboy boots, they are so precious.”

Learning rope tricks and tap dancing leads to a somewhat rowdy atmosphere. The cast, however, understands the need to keep focused with only a little over a month of total rehearsal time.

“It’s quick,” said Morgan Patterson, 16, a four-year veteran of Baldwin’s shows. “We’ve got to be on the ball and there’s no goofing around.”

But learning self-discipline spans more than one rehearsal at a time.

“Since we rehearse four hours a day, day after day, it’s hard to keep up the same energy level,” said Jon Weekley, 16. “It’s a big effort to progress and keep the momentum going forward.”

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