Children's theater can be a fun, varied and rewarding activity for all types of kids - and their families

JONATHAN HILL ILLUSTRATION
Jonathan Hill Illustration

It's a rainy Saturday morning, and Kearney Jordan is standing at the front of the main stage of the Spokane Civic Theatre. She's running through cues and movement - a process known as blocking - with a group of teens and preteens for a production of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town. The scene they're rehearsing calls for some of the cast to cross from one side of the stage to the other when a school bell rings.

The bell sounds, launching the young actors on their different trajectories.

"You're pros!" Jordan shouts. "You got this!"

For the past eight years, Jordan has led the Civic Academy, one of several local outlets for children who want to try their hand at theater. Like many of its counterpart organizations throughout the region and across the country, the academy makes a point of welcoming all comers - whether it's their first or their 15th show, and whether they prefer to participate onstage or behind the scenes.

But there's much more to children's theater - whether that's via school productions or with a local theater organization - than learning the basics of acting and set design. Participants are introduced to a wide range of life skills that can benefit them in school and everyday socialization.

"One of the things that I see kids learning is time-management skills," Jordan says. "They really have to pace their energy and practice long-term goals. Another one is memory recall, which helps so much in school."

Sadie Overstreet, an eighth grader who's appearing in Our Town, lights up with an anecdote about how she was able to commit a lengthy Spanish passage to memory in record time, thanks largely to her experience with memorizing dialogue in productions like this one.

"Projection has helped me a lot in my classes, too," she says, as has learning how to ad lib when things don't go to plan.

That prompts Connie, her brother and fellow Our Town cast member, to share his own experience drawing on the techniques he's learned in academy productions. The soft-spoken sixth grader recently stood up in front of an entrepreneurial group and delivered an impromptu pitch for a software idea.

Audrey Overstreet, Sadie and Connie's mother, credits their recreational theater experience with the cultivation of less obvious "soft skills" like imagination, cooperation and compassion: "Does anything teach empathy more than being onstage and embodying a different person?"

The longer-term takeaways of children's theater are apparent to Kristine Lyons. Now the executive artistic director of Christian Youth Theater (CYT) Spokane, Lyons has two adult sons who were regular participants in CYT shows throughout their childhood and into their teens. Her eldest son later chose to pursue a career in theater education, whereas her youngest has gone into construction.

"Our motto at CYT is 'Building character, one stage at a time,' which kind of builds on Shakespeare's, 'All the world's a stage...' But when we say 'building character,' it doesn't necessarily mean an actor, a singer or a dancer. It's building character as an individual."

The cast of CYT's 2019 performance of Newsies. - CYT PHOTO
CYT photo
The cast of CYT's 2019 performance of Newsies.

Lyons says that since its founding in the 1980s, CYT's participants have ultimately gone on to a wide variety of careers, including politics, medicine and education, all of which inevitably draw on the skill sets that they acquire both onstage and backstage. Some even return to CYT as adult volunteers.

Unlike some extracurriculars, kid-oriented theater activities can be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of interests, socioeconomic backgrounds and time commitments. The core of CYT's programming is three discrete 10-week sessions during the academic year plus an annual summer camp. Within those sessions, participants can opt to be cast or crew in musical and nonmusical shows. They can also choose between improv, voice or dance training. Scholarships are available for families who could use a little help.

Similarly, the Civic Academy offers musical and straight shows throughout the academic year in addition to summer camps. Rehearsal schedules are relatively light, often amounting to two hours per day or just a few hours per week depending on the course or production. Although the specifics might change, both the CYT and Civic Academy programming and financial aid are representative of what other children's theater organizations offer.

And, contrary to popular belief, it's not just for aspiring actors and extroverts.

"People think that because you're going to theater, you're a very outgoing person - that you want to be onstage and be in the spotlight," says Audrey Overstreet. For her, the appeal of these shows is that they double as an opportunity to spend some extra time with Connie and Sadie. She's performed alongside them several times before and is appearing with them again in Our Town.

"Being onstage with your kid? That's special. That is a unique gift," she says.

What's more, this particular show has become a family affair for the Overstreets. After years of applauding his wife and children from the seats, Audrey's husband, Chip, decided that Our Town provided the ideal entry point for his first-ever foray into acting. He also joins three generations of the Gerhardt-Michaels family - "ages 7 to 70," Jordan happily points out - who are participating in this same show.

Who ever said that children's theater was just for kids?

Are your kids interested in treading the boards or running the lights? There's plenty of choice when it comes to children's theater organizations. Here are some from around the Inland Northwest.

Christian Youth Theater Spokane cytspokane.org

Christian Youth Theater North Idaho cytnorthidaho.org

Spokane Valley Summer Theatre Camps svsummertheatre.com

Theater Arts for Children theaterartsforchildren.weebly.com

Spokane Civic Theatre Academy spokanecivictheatre.com

Hesperus Arts hesperus-arts.com

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.