Once in a while, a star is born. More often, though, a new confidence is gained. Friends are made. And a child’s world gets a little larger.
Youth theater lights up many stages north of Boston, and the people who run the classes, workshops, and theater companies say the benefits for the kids tend to have less to do with the spotlight than with everyday life.
“People call us and say, ‘How can you help my child have a career in the professional theater world?’ ” said Deirdre Budzyna, co-owner of Acting Out! Productions in Newburyport with Mara Flynn. “That’s not really what we are setting out to do in our business.
“Both Mara and I feel really strongly that theater for us growing up was an important part of our development and of the people that we became. And we want children to have that opportunity to come to classes and participate in a very low-risk environment,” Budzyna said.
Of course, many of the students do have their eyes on the prize.
Emilee Clapp, 17, a junior at Tewksbury Memorial High School, started with the North Andover-based Act Theater Company by playing a small role in the main stage production of “Beauty and the Beast” when she was in seventh grade.
“Our director, Charles Gracy, he’s wonderful, and he said to us, ‘Make every step have a purpose,’ and I said, wow, that’s magical. That’s something I kept with me, and the whole ‘Beauty and the Beast’ process made me truly realize that I wanted to do theater with my life,” Clapp said. “They made me discover my passion and I really fell in love with it.” She’s currently winnowing a list of college performing arts programs to see where she wants to apply.
Groups like Acting Out, Act Theatre Company, the Young Company at Stoneham Theatre, and Newburyport’s Theatre in the Open have classes and shows in all seasons. Most offer more intensive programs during the summer, charging tuition, and sometimes recruit their young performers to appear alongside adults in main stage productions.
They do produce successful show-biz professionals. Onetime Stoneham student Andrew Barbato went on to play the Cat in the Hat in “Seussical” and perform in many other shows at Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston. Now Wheelock will produce Barbato’s original musical “Alice,” based on “Alice in Wonderland,” this fall.
Stoneham alum Rocio Del Mar Valles is featured in “Giant,” the musical. And onetime Theatre in the Open member Taylor Adamik is stage manager for the American Repertory Theater’s long-running “Donkey Show” at Oberon in Cambridge, and also works on some of the company’s high-profile main stage productions.
But the real focus is on putting on good shows and helping youngsters stretch and grow.
“I’ve seen kids come in to us who were shy and seemed to not really know their place,” said Cara Kennedy, executive producer of the youth programs at Act, “and they’re seniors now, and they’ve blossomed, and I feel like our programs have really contributed to that.”
“It builds confidence, I believe, and it rounds people out socially,” said Acting Out performer Justin Peavey, 15, of Merrimac, a sophomore at Pentucket Regional High School. “You get to meet all these awesome people and very kind people, and you learn to have confidence in yourself through performing.”
Being involved in theater at any age makes you a better person and in ways that overlap with other parts of life, says Caitlin Lowans, associate artistic director and director of education at Stoneham.
“They’re using their creativity and marrying their own ideas with those of others,” she said. “Building an ensemble is not dissimilar from building a team and working with other people. There’s a lot of self-discipline that goes into theater. You have your work in rehearsal, but you have to do your work outside of rehearsal as well, and expectations really have to be met.”
Maybe even more important, the benefits include new perspectives on life. Through performing, Lowans said, “we’re pushed into the mind and heart and body of someone who may be entirely different from ourselves or going through things we’re not going through.”
She cites a recent Stoneham production of “Charlotte’s Web” by elementary students in which they played barnyard animals facing tests of friendship and even death and dying. The stage is “a very helpful, open place for them to think about these things as characters before they may have to think about them as themselves.”
Large, established professional companies also have education programs, primarily in the summer. Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell has its Young Company program for students in grades 1 to 12, including two-week summer sessions in which kids develop their own performance pieces and perform them at the end. North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly offers classes and workshops in the spring, summer, and fall, althogh it no longer has the education department and expansive program that it did when it was a nonprofit organization.
Many communities, though, have grass-roots organizations, like the TTS Players in Byfield, that often grow out of a local need or a single person’s drive. The best example on the North Shore may be Anna Smulowitz, a busy director and teacher for decades, who founded Acting Out and Theatre in the Open. Although she no longer runs either one, she continues to produce and direct through Anna Smulowitz Productions, and to teach with Acting Out.
She recently embarked on a 10-day trip to Europe, leading a group of local youths performing her play, “Terezin: Children of the Holocaust,” first performed by Theatre in the Open in 1983.
The groups generally work hard to see that everyone gets a turn in the spotlight and that differences are respected.
“The philosophy of Act carries through from the adult to the kids’ programs,” says Kennedy. “There are people with leads, but there are no stars. Every single person on stage is important.”
The companies generally mix age groups in different ways for a reason. Middle-school students might be role models for younger kids in one program, then learn from high-schoolers in another.
“We will have a big ensemble of really young kids, and when they’re backstage and they’re talking, we get so much joy out of saying, ‘Guys, we don’t talk backstage,’ because we did the same thing,” said Theatre in the Open company member Aisha Chodat, 17. “I feel so excited when [a younger member] is like, ‘Aisha, can you help me go over this scene? Because I don’t know how to say these lines and I need your help.’ Oh my God, I would love to help you with this scene. . . . It’s so fulfilling.
“I feel like I would be honestly a completely different person if I hadn’t gotten involved’’ in Theatre in the Open, said Chodat, a longtime Newburyport resident, now a senior at Haverhill High. She’s developed her acting skills and learned clowning and juggling with the company, where she’s been a stalwart since the eighth grade. “I used to think I wanted to act, be famous, go to Hollywood, you know, like every young actress. [Theatre in the Open] made me realize there are so many more important things when it comes to creating art with people than yourself, than making your name bigger.”
In the fall, she’s going to Hampshire College where, she said, she’ll study theater, education, and, surprisingly, agriculture. “I want to have my own theater company on a farm someday,” she explained.
To give her a start, Theatre in the Open artistic director Edward Speck – a former youth member – has added administrative tasks for her, from data entry to maintaining the company’s Facebook page to cleaning up at the headquarters, an old house at the edge of Maudslay State Park.
“I said, there is a whole other side of your talents you need to develop, if you are not only going to act or direct or teach but learn about surviving as a company and as an administrator,” Speck said. “She is our button-maker-in-chief.”
Whatever happens in the future for Aisha and the rest, one thing sets them apart.
“They’ve had this fairly unusual experience of growing up in a place where, if you want to do theater in any month of the year, there is a theater that is putting on a play,” Budzyna said.Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.