When Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney declared Let’s put on a show!, they gave a voice to the dreams of every young singer, dancer and thespian. If there’s a child in your family with stars in their eyes, performing arts organizations in the St. Louis area offer a multitude of educational programs for kids of all ages and aspirations.
Metro Theater Company
Devoted exclusively to working with young people, Metro Theater Company began almost 40 years ago, the creation of artist Zaro Weil and educator Lynn Rubright. Since its inception, the company has toured throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Italy, Japan and Taiwan. But the company is not only for kids who want to act, explains artistic director Carol North. “Our approach to educational programs is different,” she says. “We’re in classrooms with the teachers, working with their curriculum or addressing social issues like bullying and oppression.” The staff also collaborate with other arts organizations. “We’ve developed wonderful partnerships with all kinds of entities, and I think that gives us a finger on the pulse of the community.”
‘Building Community through Drama’ uses drama and improvisation to help children understand the impact of not only their own behavior, but how behavior influences history and social conscience. “How can we examine our role in situations of oppression and bullying, even if we are only bystanders?” asks North. “Because the kids are role-playing, it becomes possible to play out multiple strategies, see the choices characters might make, and the consequence of those choices.” Other programs include Step Inside the Story, which uses creative drama and imagination to enrich literacy and reading, and Arts Intersection, a partnership with New City School.
The Black Rep
With workshops and summer programs in creative drama, theatre production, and poetry performance, The Black Rep can offer guidance to just about any kid with theater fever. Artistic associate Linda Kennedy explains that doesn’t always means performing, so the Rep’s Teen Tech program lets teenagers gain experience in stage and production management. “A lot of times kids just don’t want to be on stage, even though their parents think they should be!” she says. “My grandson, Teerell, said, Grandma Linda, why do you keep putting me in the summer program? I just want to do the scenery! He’s having a great time working the lights as a teen tech for our current production, On Golden Pond.”
The verbiage of William Shakespeare can be difficult for kids to grasp, and Kennedy says it can be helpful for them to experience the language through physical storytelling. “We try to teach children the human experience, and the African- American influence on the human experience,” she says. “Once they understand the story, they begin to relate to it more, because they begin to recognize the language is not that different from the slang they might use. We don’t want to present Shakespeare as stiff and proper, because that was not his intent. He had a very good sense of humor!”
STAGES St. Louis
Beginning with acting classes like Fairytale Mix Up and Seuss on the Loose, designed for the preschool set, STAGES St. Louis offers theater opportunities for kids of all ages, but director of education and outreach Rob Grumich emphasizes that it’s not just about being on stage. “What I tell the parents is that 99 percent of the students who walk through the doors of our academy are not going to be musical theater stars—and that’s not the main reason we’re here,” he says. “We’re here for those kids who enjoy the arts and want to have fun.” A performing arts education offers lifelong benefits, he adds. “Maybe they’ll become lawyers, or teachers or marketing directors—careers that might involve public speaking or public presentations. It’s about building skills and self-confidence.”
While STAGES is the only professional theater company in St. Louis with its own performing arts academy, Grumich says the teachers also are involved in many community outreach efforts. “Thanks to grant funding, we’re able to introduce workshops and residencies to underserved communities through the Urban Arts Initiative,” he says. “And Access the Arts offers musical theater classes and performance opportunities for kids with special needs. The classes have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio and at a more individualized pace.”