BWW Interview: STAGES Youth Theater: Making the Child the Center of the Story
"It's important to make the child the center of the story," says playwright and theatre artist Stacey Koloski, whose Letters from the Sky is being performed this week (February 1-8) as part of Portland's STAGES Youth Theater's TYA series. The play, directed by Dana Legawiec, tells the story of a young girl's relationship with a friend from outer space, and explores the issues of understanding each individual's uniqueness. "The play focuses on how we treat people from other places, people we don't know. Often it is the child who is most able to engage in an authentic and welcoming way. So I wanted to tell the story from the child's perspective and capture the wonder with which children see the world," explains Koloski.
Koloski, together with Hollye Seddon, co-founded STAGES thirteen years ago to address what Koloski calls "the lack of after school activities in drama." She says they began working with the Little Dolphin Preschool teaching classes in theatre and movement. "But we discovered very quickly that the kids wanted to be in shows, and we became this big Production Company. Since 2007 we have produced some 150 musicals for children, and we also have a Shakespeare program for kids."
The organization began as a for-profit venture with the founders' investing their own money and operating on a lean budget with monies derived from tuition and ticket sales. Two and one-half years ago, they became a not-for-profit which now enables them to raise money. STAGES also grew in its physical footprint over the years. "We began in a tiny retail suite in Scarborough," Koloski recalls, "worked for some time in the Mad Horse Theatre facility in South Portland, and finally came to our present venue at 202 Woodford Street, Portland, where we built our own performance space in 2016.
Both Koloski and Director of Education Shannon Wade stress the importance of their theatre classes and productions being Made in Maine. Their TYA productions employ Maine directors, choreographers, designers, and other creative and feature scripts written by Maine artists. Says Wade, "We like to celebrate the many artists we have here in Maine. It gives them an opportunity to develop their scripts and by working with us to think from the kids' point of view."
STAGES services the greater Portland area and reaches out to the south (Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough) and west (Gorham, Cumberland), providing in-school educational programs, offering summer camps, and fielding a full season TYA season. The organization offers a wide variety of in-school classes, workshops, and artist residencies of varying durations and formats. Wade explains, "Our goal is to be customizable. When we partner with a school we ask the teaches what curriculum topics they are covering, what excites them, and how we can fit in." She cites several such programs including a long time residency with Ocean House in Cape Elizabeth where she teaches music and creative movement or a workshop at Longfellow Elementary (Portland) which explores fairytales from the perspective of different characters.
"In addition, STAGES also offers summer camps divided by age groups. "These camps are an extension of our musical theatre program," Koloski says. "The kids work for six hours a day for three weeks to produce a show." The emphasis and goals vary according to the age group. "Last year we did Beauty and the Beast," Koloski recalls. "The older group performed the same show you would see on any stage using the same licensed material that adults would. With the five to six year olds, we used a more gentle introduction to the story."
"And with the seven to nine-year-olds," Wade continues, "we let them cast the play themselves and even make some changes in the script. For example, we ended having three Belles and a new character, Maria the Microwave! It is a very hands on experience, and at the end we present their work in what we call a family sharing so their families and friends can see what the kids have been learning."
Wade talks about the value of these programs. "Anytime you can bring the arts into the classroom, it is a very powerful experience. I love theatre so much because it gets kids up and moving. They sometimes don't realize how much they are learning in a very kinesthetic way."
Wade and Koloski enumerate the tenets of the organization's educational philosophy: "nurturing artists and creativity in all forms; treating everyone with kindness and respect; practicing innovation and risk taking; and recognizing the inherent uniqueness within each person."
Koloski says, "We feel strongly across all the programs that theatre is not competitive. We believe in making it accessible and exciting for all kids no matter their age or experience level. We don't always cast the child who might present as most appropriate for the role; we make sure everyone gets a turn. We like to celebrate the uniqueness of the individual and meet the kids where they are."
STAGES has an open registration policy, and embraces a team spirit and family feeling. Wade says, "The kids make such lasting friendships here. Often they figure out who they are, and then they come back to mentor others. The atmosphere is warm and supportive."
Both Wade and Koloski see the STAGES experience - and, indeed, theatre in general - as a transformative experience for the students and for the teachers. "Sometimes it makes me think about the canon of musical theatre in a completely different way when I see an eight or ten-year-old in a role," says Koloski.
And she sums up the STAGES approach to theatre by saying, "It's not so much about ability as it is about authenticity. I like to think we use our educational philosophy to open the door for the kids and let them take it from there. We provide the scaffolding and let them build. I like to use the analogy of being air traffic controllers. We provide a safe and supportive environment for the children to explore their creativity."
Photographs courtesy of STAGES Youth Theater, Letters photo by Dana Legawiec
Letters from the Skyruns at STAGES Youth Theatre from February 1-8, 2019 at 202 Woodford St., Portland, ME www.stagesyouththeater.org 207-699-3330