Theater programs teach kids to act up

Aro Ntatin, 9, Cordell Parham, 8, and Rachel Foley, 10, wait their turn to audition for the dance portion of the School House Rock play on January 26, 2008. Auditions for the play, put on by Performing Arts in Children’s Education, were held at Benton Elementary school.



COLUMBIA — Early on a Saturday morning, Katie Hobbs, 13, sat on the edge of her red chair to practice the solo she will perform in the musical “School House Rock Live! Jr.”. The Benton Elementary School gymnasium filled with sound as Hobbs’ cast mates sang their parts.

The musical is being produced by Performing Arts in Children’s Education. Hobbs and the rest of the cast are among the hundreds of Columbia students who participate each year in youth theater through either PACE or Theater Reaching Young People and Schools.

PACE and TRYPS both provide young adults with theater-production experience. Youth can participate in adult theater groups, such as Maplewood Barn and Columbia Entertainment Company, when roles are available. But PACE, which started in 2002, and TRYPS, which started in 2000, both focus on young adults.

In 2002, Debbie Baldwin and Angela Howard invited a group of parents and theater artists to startPACE. About 20 people donated funds, and in 2003, PACE filed for nonprofit status.

Now PACE puts on five to seven productions a year that are almost completely controlled by the children involved in the organization. Approximately 100 students ages 8 to 18 are involved each semester.

“Our company is solely for youth,” Baldwin said. “They run all aspects of productions — lights, set, sound crew as well as act. As they mature, they are given more jobs of administrative responsibility — stage manager, assistant director and so forth.”

Starting in August, PACE productions will be held in the Missouri Theatre. In the past, performances had been held at Smithton Middle School, one of its partners in education. PACE would also like to produce a yearly Art in Health series to be performed at Jesse Hall.

As PACE has continued to grow, so has TRYPS, the older of the two organizations.

In 1997, Jill Womack, the creative director of TRYPS, got an assignment in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to design her own youth-theater program. After a few years, she took this assignment to heart in Columbia, her hometown. She spent a year in Columbia talking to local elementary school principals, PTA groups, the Office of Cultural Affairs, artistic directors, friends and family before the company had its first classes and productions.

“In 1999, TRYPS was a notebook and an idea. In March 2000 — our first season — was one play,” Womack said.

The organization also had an outreach program for elementary schools.

The organization’s first play, “Free to Be, You and Me,” had an audience of 3,800. Now the organization has more than 100 events a year that pull in a combined audience of more than 22,000.

“Now, there is barely a week on the calendar without something going on,” Womack said.

The children act while adults teach and execute the technical aspects of the productions. For the older students, there is an internship program where the company pairs students with adults to learn the technical features as well. Both CEC and Maplewood Barn had youth involved in theater before TRYPS and PACE,began but the whole of the organizations were not concentrated on youth.

“The difference between them and PACE is that we are solely a youth theater and not a part of any other program,” Baldwin said. “Our company is one of the only companies of its kind in the nation because we solely focus upon them [youth].”

The youth involved in both companies learn not only to memorize lines and work lights, but also to exercise practical, everyday skills.

“Theater teaches kids self-confidence, poise and public-speaking skills,” Womack said. “It offers shy kids a way to express themselves. It offers all children an opportunity to challenge themselves creatively, work as teams, practice responsibility, act as mentors to younger students and teaches a great work ethic,”

Kathy Akyol, a parent, said she feels the same way because of her experience. Her daughter Ally, 10, has been involved in TRYPS for three years.

“Ally is hearing impaired and TRYPS has been a wonderful confidence builder for her,” Akyol said. “I truly believe that TRYPS is one of the best activities in Columbia that kids of all ages can be a part of.”

Womack agrees that it’s a great activity for these youth.

“Theater is pure magic,” Womack said.

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