Child’s Play

Lisa Schmidt and her talented young actors gain more room to move

DEMANDING ROLES: Queen Miriama (Cypress Durkin, left) listens to the demands of the scheming Rumpelstiltskin (Hailey Sparlin) in The Children’s Theatre production of <i>Rumpelstiltskin</i>.

DEMANDING ROLES: Queen Miriama (Cypress Durkin, left) listens to the demands of the scheming Rumpelstiltskin (Hailey Sparlin) in The Children’s Theatre production of Rumpelstiltskin.

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s not what you might think. Yes, there are youthful high spirits, happy chatter, giggling and some minor mischief making. But the children involved in Lisa Schmidt’s theater group stop whatever they’re doing and listen whenever she calls out directions.

Schmidt takes them through the paces: She prompts them when lines are dropped, reminds them when blocking drifts, suggests vocal inflections and generally guides the performances of her young stars.

At the end of the rehearsal, Schmidt is suddenly faced with a potential crisis: The father of one of her actors points out that the family has an outing planned on one of the weekends the show is running. After some conversation, Schmidt says to the boy, “Well, looks like you only get to do one show.”

“Even though I tell kids the main thing is to have fun and we’re here to play,” Schmidt says afterwards, “it’s work too. They’ve got to memorize these lines, they’ve got to show up for rehearsals, and they can’t do things like tell me two and a half weeks before a show opens that they can’t make it. That’s totally unprofessional. And that’s something I think is good about kids in theater—they’re learning responsibility already. If one person drops out, it affects the whole crew. Someone else is going to have to learn the lines really quick or something. But the show’s still gonna go on.”

Schmidt comes from Fresno originally and has had practically a lifetime fascination with the theater.

“I started doing plays when I was about eight,” she explains. “And I started to direct them when I was like 14, 15.” Schmidt went to Theodore Roosevelt Performing Arts Magnet High School, in Fresno. “I think it’s one of only two performing arts high schools in all of California,” she says. “There are people from my graduating class that have gone on to New York and what have you. I ended up in Chico [laughs]. Doin’ this. Which I’d much rather do! I like a small town.

Director Lisa Schmidt helps her daughter, Cypress, adjust her Queen costume while actor Antonio Lieberum watches in the background.

Photo by Tom Angel

“When I started to do shows, going way back down nostalgia lane, when I did Mary Poppins [at 8 years old], my very first director had started her own children’s theater, the Fresno Children’s Playhouse at the Fresno Community Theater. This woman was so amazing. She was really wonderfully artistic. She would work with groups of like 20 kids when no one else would and work with really young kids. And she was just great. I came away from those shows with, ‘If she can do that, maybe I could, too.'”

Schmidt moved to Chico about 12 years ago. She says she did some theater here and there, but not too much. It wasn’t until two years ago that she first approached the Chico Area Parks and Recreation District about teaching a few children’s theater workshops.

When asked how the theater group came about, she says, “I think that once I got the kids together, I started to realize there’s not enough children’s theater happening in this town.” She explains that near the end of one CARD workshop in October of 1999, she and her actors did a 10-minute rendition of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. “It was very short,” Schmidt says. “ And, you know, minimal everything … no set, minimal costumes. Didn’t advertise it at all, and just had all these parents show up. Ended up with like 50 people in the audience! And I was like, ‘Mmm, if I can end up with 50 people in the audience doing such minimal stuff, who knows what we could possibly turn it into?'”

What it has turned into now is Schmidt joining forces with The Chico Cabaret’s youth group, Theater on the Inside Out. She says that this production will be the last under the CARD aegis. “I came the opening night of The Emperor’s New Clothes,” she explains, recounting the origin of the merger. “I sat way in the very back, like any director would. And I sat there going, ‘This is it. This is it.’ You know, I talked to some people at The Blue Room, I talked to Alex Belden about doing some stuff out at August Moon, and none of that really felt the way this place did.

The creative cast of <i>Rumpelstiltskin</i>. Back row, left to right: Hailey Sparlin, Jessica Schwellenbach, Cypress Durkin, Robert Kingori, Alex Moline, Hannah Clark, Russel Stephens, Zophia Sparlin and Antonio Lieberum; front row, seated: Violet Zempel, Kiana Phelan, Sierra Friesen, Laura Harvey and Noah Rutherford-Tate.

Photo by Tom Angel

“I had met [Chico Cabaret head Phil Ruttenburg] before but didn’t really know him very well yet. So I approached him that night [after Emperor’s] and told him my ideas. And we met a few days later and sat down for about three hours and talked. And he’s like, ‘Well, you know, how do you feel about leaving CARD?'”

Schmidt’s final show for CARD is a humorous retelling of that Brothers Grimm classic Rumpelstiltskin. She is clearly enthusiastic about the new venue and a larger budget for her productions. “What’s really cool about [local theater vet] Dave Lindstrom building the set on this one … well, this is like our first professional set. And everything else has just been like me taking cardboard boxes, cutting them up and putting poster paint on them. So this is the first one we’re forking out a pretty penny for. And Alter Ego has been very generous in letting us rent costumes; they’re giving us a discount. The costumes are going to be authentic, unlike any of the other shows we’ve done. We’re just going to keep getting better.”

When asked what’s next, Schmidt answers, “I want to continue to do productions like this. And starting this summer, I’m going to do theater workshops. It goes back to my original idea, but it’s going to incorporate more technical aspects of the theater. So we’ll get together and do little scenes, do improvisational games, write scenes depending on the age group of the kids. And we’ll go over things like stage make-up, lighting, cues, technical stuff and have fun. Put music on, make masks, you know, crazy little things like that. There will be a lot of good stuff going on.”

Rumpelstiltskin is performed at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, May 19, 20, 26 and 27, at the Chico Cabaret, 2201 Pillsbury Rd., in the Almond Orchard Shopping Center. Tickets are only $5 (kids 4 and under are free) and are available at Creative Apple, Zucchini & Vine and Kramore Inn. Lisa Schmidt has tentatively scheduled two theater workshops for children for this summer, the first for children 6 to 8 years old beginning in June. Cost is $75. Some scholarships will be available. More information: Chico Cabaret, 895-0245.