A few years back, Arvada High School students brought their production of “The Music Man” to Hackberry Hill Elementary and involved the younger students in the production.
That’s when Grant Gonzalez, a student at Hackberry at the time, fell in love with theater.
He was cast in the chorus of the show and began participating in school plays and Arvada Center classes and camps.
“I learned how to come out of my shell and express myself in theater,” the 13-year-old said. “I gained confidence by meeting and performing in front of so many people.”
There’s a magic to theater that never fades, no matter the age, but it’s especially potent as a child. And as with so many other activities, exposure to theater as a child can be the first step to a lifelong love.
“There’s something about the live theater that is just a different animal than any other form of entertainment,” said Rory Pierce, director of Golden’s Miners Alley Playhouse’s children’s theater program. “Even kids who aren’t interested in performing gain when being exposed to theater.”
Access to theatrical experiences isn’t always easy for young people, particularly with funding for arts programs in many schools being cut or eliminated.
“I love helping students discover things about themselves,” said Tami LoSasso, Lakewood High School’s theater director and chapter director of the Colorado State Thespians. “But there are a lot of schools in the district that don’t have the opportunity to offer classes for their students.”
Future theater fans
Many children’s first exposure to theater is a result of school field trips to local theaters like the nationally acclaimed Arvada Center, Miners Alley or Northglenn Youth Theatre, with shows specifically written for young audiences.
According to Lisa Leafgreen, education manager at the Arvada Center, about 1,000 children a day visit the center to see performances.
Local playwright and director Edith Weiss, who has written several children’s shows that have been produced at the center, said the best part of sharing theater with children is the freedom.
“The suspension of belief is so pure with kids,” she said. “You have to stay true to the reality you create, but it’s so limitless on what you can do with that reality.”
Pierce has been writing children’s plays for years. The key, he said, is keeping children interested. He tries to make his shows as interactive as possible, with opportunities for children to answer questions and, sometimes, even get in on the action on stage.
“It’s insulting to the kids if you act down to them — do silly voices and things like that,” said David Payne, who is directing the Arvada Center’s production of “Junie B. Jones, The Musical” with his wife, Julie. “What you really want is the kids to use their imagination, which is something they don’t learn in many of their classes.”
For actors in the making
Not all children enjoy team activities like sports, but acting provides another outlet for children to work with peers toward a common goal, said Kimberly Jongejan, Northglenn Youth Theatre director.
“There are so many children for whom the arts are their ‘thing’ — rather than say sports — and having an opportunity for them to discover their own talents, interests and personal connections is so beneficial,” Jongejan wrote in an email interview. “Knowing that there are so many kids who need this because it speaks directly to who they are makes it a huge responsibility to make sure that it continues to thrive.”
The Arvada Center has offered youth theater classes and camps for more than 30 years, the Northglenn Youth Theatre for 22 years and Miners Alley just finished its first full year of classes. All three programs provide children the opportunity to test the theatrical waters.
Ella Matheo, 8, got into acting because both her parents are performers. She enrolled in the Miners Alley program.
“It’s fun to get to play on stage,” she said. “And when you’re ready, you get to invite everyone to come see you.”
One of the biggest benefits of theater is the way it builds confidence.
“Some students find their passion in these kinds of classes, and for others it’s just good to build confidence,” Leafgreen said. “We’ll see really shy kids who come here and put that shyness aside and really grow. It’s a different story for each child.”
Benefits for all
Whether children are in the audience or on stage, all involved applauded the myriad benefits to familiarity with the theater.
Children who are exposed to the arts awaken a larger sense of imagination, brain function and excitement that cannot be matched by anything else,” Jongejan said. “Participating in theater teaches a vast array of life skills, including common focused goals, teamwork, self-control, assertion, advocacy, confidence, creativity, problem solving and physical activity.”
One of the best gifts theater gives to people of all ages is empathy, LoSasso said, and for children, that’s a particularly powerful gift.
“The theater is so powerful because it helps people understand others’ perspectives,” LoSasso said. “It provides things like compassion and understanding — things you can’t just teach in a classroom.”
Gonzalez has seen this firsthand.
“You meet so many people who are just like you,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes for awhile.”