Small characters, big performances

Small characters, big performances

Some of the biggest entertainment this summer in Southeast Texas comes from the smallest of characters – Southeast Texas kids.

Community theaters, like The Betty Greenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Port Arthur Little Theatre and Orange Community Players, offer constructive summertime fun for children, culminating in stage performances for all audiences, and the curtain is about to go up.

All told, more than 200 children will perform in one of six productions between now and the end of July. Children as young as 6 and up to 18 are singing, dancing, practicing their lines, their facial expressions, their moves, grooves and making costumes in preparation for performances that begin June 25.

“There is a world of art and we are showing kids that you can make music and support the arts — become a lover of arts,” said Jerry McMillan, managing technical director at The Betty Greenberg Center for the Performing Arts at 4155 Laurel, where the Beaumont Community Players perform.

Beaumont Community Players has hosted some kind of summer theater camp for more than 35 years. Kidmunity, four summer workshops divided into varying age groups and performances, has evolved over those years, teaching young thespians and those who just love to be center stage, every aspect of presenting a major production to the community.

“Kidmunity brings kids to the theater and gets them away from TV,” McMillan said.

Every summer, children audition for the “audition experience,” but no child is turned away. For four weeks, three of the theater groups – Players (grades 1-2), Jesters (grades 3-4) and Krewe (grades 5-7) – practice for three hours, five days a week. The fourth group of campers, Troupe (grades 8-12), practices for six weeks prior to their performances. The per-child cost for all workshops is $100.

“Kids have a great time because they are away from their parents and with other kids,” said McMillan. “They get interaction without stress, and they learn their lines and roles without worrying about being graded.”

One of the four Kidmunity performances is “Suesscial, Jr.,” a musical mix of classic Dr. Suess stories including “Horton Hears a Who,” and “The Cat and the Hat.” Baylor University student and Beaumont Community Players veteran, Philip Skinner, is the director.

“It’s such a corky show and the most musical musical I’ve ever been a part of,” said Skinner, a senior voice major who began his performing career at the age of 9 with Beaumont Community Players. “It’s challenging, too, because sometimes there are 51 kids on stage at one time all singing and dancing. It’s a stretch for those who want to act because there is so much singing, but they are all enjoying it.”

Other Kidmunity performances are “Willy Wonka KID,” a shortened version of the stage musical featuring 32 kids in the wonderland of Willy, Oompa Loompas and all; “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley,” who travels and sings all over the world; and “AIDA,” a love story featuring the music of Elton John and Tim Rice.

One of the tricks to a successful performance is building camaraderie among the children. Skinner spends the first few days just playing games and allowing the children, who are from Lumberton, Vidor and Beaumont, to bond.

“I have a rule that if I clap twice, kids have to go stand next to someone they don’t know,” said Skinner. “This constant shifting gets them out of their comfort zones.”

Codie Vasquez, coordinator of the 2011 Young People’s Theatre Workshop: “Alice in Wonderland” at the Orange Community Players, also implements “warm-up” type activities to get the kids interacting.

“Kids come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and cliques from schools,” said Vasquez. “So the first week we do different theater-based activities and exercises like crafts themed on ‘Alice.’ We made mad hats and paper roses. Then we learned about make-up one night and later broke up into small groups to come up with scenes to learn to be creative together.”

The Young People’s Theatre performance “Alice In Wonderland” is adapted from Lewis Carroll’s book “Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There),” using the first stage version of the script written by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus in the 1930s.

The four-week workshop leading up to the performance, which includes more than 50 kids, costs $25. Vasquez says the cost is minimal due to funding from the Orange Service League and the Southeast Texas Arts Council.

Debbie Pletcher, the director and coordinator of Port Arthur Little Theatre’s production “Holka Polka” takes two weeks of vacation every year just to put on CELT (Children’s Educational Little Theatre), now in its second year, hosting 23 children at a cost of $75 per child.

“We teach every aspect of theater,” said Pletcher. “The kids do the lights and sounds, paint the scenery and build the sets and do everything to put a show on.”

This year, the show is a fairytale mystery published by and featuring familiar, yet different fairytale characters like Humphrey Dumpty, who is the character that actually solves the mystery, and FGM, the fairy godmother with an evil plan.

Many of the children performing in “Holka Polka” are starring as munchkins and flying monkeys in the joint Port Arthur Little Theatre and Lamar State College – Port Arthur production “The Wizard of Oz” also scheduled during the summer.