Even though she’s 43, it’s not out of character for Jill Womack to sit at the kids’ table.
“If there’s a big family dinner, you can usually find me sitting with the kids because that’s where all the action is,” she said. “Working with kids is never dull or boring.”
While in college, Womack applied that philosophy to an assignment that required her to design a professional children’s theater. After living in New York for a year as a self-described starving artist, Womack traveled to Los Angeles, where she founded a theater company with friends.
Womack launched TRYPS (Theater Reaching Young People & Schools) in 2000 when she returned to Columbia.
“Originally, I wanted to put on plays with adult actors for children,” Womack said, “but everyone at TRYPS quickly discovered that the kids had the talent and desire to be on stage and their families wanted to see them. We went from one show in our first season to five in the sixth. We’re constantly growing.”
Womack said her love of theater began when she saw “Aladdin” on stage in second grade.
“Theater is especially great for kids because every play teaches a lesson,” she said. “Those are real people on stage, in real situations. It teaches kids to focus and concentrate, but it also allows them the freedom to be inventive and creative.”
Four years after its first show, “Free to Be … You and Me,” and three days from the opening of its 20th show, “Holes,” the growth is evident in every crevice of the TRYPS office.
Off to the side of the room, which is decorated with paintings, photos, scripts, awards and plaques that outline the life of Womack’s organization, Karis Crosby fretted over which shovel to use.
“I think you’d better take the shorter one, baby,” Womack said to the Jefferson Junior High School eighth-grader. She patted Karis on the back before moving toward the office, where Gabe Brotzman, 14, stopped her.
“Does this accent sound all right?” he asked in a stilted Slavic accent. He’s been listening to language tapes for a while, trying to find the best way to let the audience know his character is from Latvia. She gave him a high-five and her approval in return.
After nearly two months of rehearsals, “Holes” is ready for its run Wednesday through Sunday at Columbia College’s Launer Auditorium. The cast of adult and child actors Womack has assembled will perform for more than 3,000 elementary through high school students from all over mid-Missouri.
The play is adapted from Louis Sachar’s Newbery Medal-winning book and concentrates on the events after main character Stanley Yelnats is sent to a boys prison camp.
TRYPS’ innovative programs, including daylong theater workshops and Friday-night theater classes, play a starring role in the devout following the company has developed. Womack, however, is the main reason many return.
Jennifer Black-Cone, who has acted, directed and performed administrative tasks for TRYPS, said she has great respect for Womack’s vision and drive. In her eyes, Womack is providing a service to the community unmatched by any other group.
“Her quest is truly selfless,” Black-Cone said. “She is constantly thinking of things to do to bring theater to children and hopefully hook them into the love of it. Her ongoing relationship with the kids, their families, area businesses and community in general is genuine.”
Ellen Brotzman, whose two sons have starring roles in “Holes,” shares Black-Cone’s opinion.
“We adore Jill. She is such an amazing person,” she said. “She has this way of talking to kids that’s so motivating. I don’t know how she does it, but she has this way of making the kids want to behave and please her.”
Brotzman said she discovered TRYPS when her family moved to Columbia six years ago.
A portion of Womack’s success, Brotzman said, comes from her interactions with the kids outside play rehearsals.
“She really knows how to relate to the kids, she isn’t just their director, she’s their friend,” she said.
Brotzman’s 11-year-old son, Jacob, said he’s a veteran at TRYPS.
“Zero (in ‘Holes’) is the biggest role I got, and it’s my fifth with TRYPS,” he said. “When I was younger, I did some other little plays with my church, but then I did ‘Tom Sawyer’ with TRYPS, and I really liked it, so I kept coming back.”
Jacob said one of the things he likes most about TRYPS is Womack.
“I think Jill is a really cool person,” he said. “She’s really nice, even when she gets mad, and she never yells at us. Plus, she does cool stuff like taking us to movies.”
Jacob’s brother Gabe, another five-play TRYPS veteran, said he likes Womack for many of the same reasons.
“Jill is the nicest director I’ve worked with,” he said. “She’s made the environment here at TRYPS really great; it’s so laid-back. I feel really comfortable here.”
In the middle of the room, 12 young cast members chatted and laughed as they got into costume, orange jumpsuits that say “Boone County Jail” on the back. Jacob, who is smaller than the rest of the cast, had to roll up the legs of his jumpsuit to keep from tripping on stage.
“That’s OK,” he said, “Zero is the youngest guy in the play.”
Emerging from her office, Womack announced that it was time to rehearse.
At her words, Alex Espy, who is pulling double duty as TRYPS’ creative programs director and Mr. Pedanski in “Holes,” held up a wide black-and-white “Quiet” sign from the back of the room.
The ever-increasing noise level in the room however, showed no one noticed.
“You gotta love it,” Espy said.
The structured chaos is common at TRYPS, but those involved said they wouldn’t change a thing.
“There’s a method to our madness, I swear,” Womack said before turning to direct the first scene of the day.