Put the kid in the show
Summer belongs to the kids at local community theaters
Evan Clapham stands in the cool shade of Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove, scratching his bushy gray beard and practicing Pyramus’ lines from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As an actor, Clapham is professional, convincing and almost overly dramatic—which makes it hard to believe he’s only 15 years old and a sophomore at Pleasant Valley High School.
“I had forgotten how much I love theater,” he said after removing his scratchy nylon beard and red suit coat. “Even just hanging out doing concession and selling hot dogs—I just love hanging out in the theater.”
Clapham is just one of many local youths who have been bitten by the acting bug. Fortunately for them, and those of us who enjoy a good stage performance, there are also a number of local theater companies offering programs designed for kids and teens, particularly during these hot summer months.
The key players, so to speak, are the Blue Room Theatre’s Young Company, Chico Cabaret’s Theatre on the Inside Out and Theatre on the Ridge’s two programs, Castaways and Students on Stage. Combined, these busy community theaters accommodate hundreds of area youths and put on dozens of performances.
Back in the park, Clapham and three others are rehearsing the Green Show they are presenting before each performance of Shakespeare in the Park’s The Adventures of Betty Rocket, Space Lawyer. The kids are under the supervision of Lisa Schmidt, the director of the Blue Room’s Young Company.
“Kids have so much insight when it comes to acting,” she said. “I think if we as adults show them that we’re here to listen to them, well, that’s just really invaluable.”
The Young Company offers an extensive summer program of classes designed for kids from age 4 to 18. For a few hours each day for three weeks, students can learn everything from acting basics to improv to scriptwriting. They also have the opportunity to participate in two top-notch productions, with this summer’s being Rapunzel and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Director Schmidt fell in love with the theater after seeing Hansel and Gretel at age 4. As an 8-year-old in Fresno, Schmidt had the opportunity to work in a children’s theater group much like the one she organizes now.
Her history in the Chico performing arts scene goes back to when she started the now-defunct Children’s Playhouse through the Chico Area Recreation District. She later spent some time working at Chico Cabaret before moving to the Blue Room three years ago as the youth director and just recently became the theater’s public relations coordinator as well.
Schmidt says there’s a lot of balance required to pursue a passion in theater—for students it is a balance between school responsibilities and play rehearsals, but for her it is finding the happy medium between devoting all her time to the theater and spending time with her daughter, Cypress Durkin.
“The kids that really like it find a way to make it work,” Schmidt said. “For me, on certain nights, it’s not as easy to go home and make dinner and stuff. Some nights I just want to hang out, but for the most part I just really love being part of the theater.”
Cypress is a huge part of Schmidt’s life, both at home and in the theater. The 12-year-old—who shares Schmidt’s radiant smile and gregarious personality—has participated in nearly every show her mother has directed, as everything from a piece of scenery to a lead role.
She said her experience in the theater has helped her gain public speaking skills, something she likes to show off while debating in class.
“I don’t think it’s just the acting, although it’s really fun to be someone else,” Durkin said. “But I think it’s because you meet a lot of people, too. It becomes your social life.”
Meanwhile, across town, in a dimly lit theater in the Almond Orchard Plaza, Chico Cabaret’s Theatre on the Inside Out was finishing up a musical performance of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The teen with the mischievous boyish grin and the pleasant singing voice behind the character of Tom Sawyer is Nick Estep, a 19-year-old Butte College student.
“I had no idea I could sing until a friend forced me to try out for Les Mis…,” Estep said. He had so much fun doing the Chico High School performance of Les Misàrables that he joined the Theater on the Inside Out team about a year and a half ago and plans to transfer to California State University, Fullerton to pursue acting full-time.
“I guess then we’ll just see where life takes me,” he said.
The Chico Cabaret youth program is a little different from the others in that there is more focus on rehearsals and performances and less on formal class time. It runs year-round with nearly the same intensity of the summer program, which filled up months ago.
Also, Theatre on the Inside Out has many shows with all-ages casts—like Tom Sawyer—so that acting really does become a family affair.
“We have all these parents who have always wanted to be onstage or used to be onstage and want to get their kids into it,” said Phil Ruttenberg, director of Theatre on the Inside Out. “And acting with your kids can be so fun.”
Ruttenberg, a friendly teddy bear of a man who greets each theater patron as if welcoming them into his home, knows this first-hand, as all three of his children are regularly involved with the shows he and his wife, Sue, direct. The husband-and-wife team has been working with young actors for the last 15 years, the last four with Chico Cabaret. When they originally took over the space, they had planned on dedicating the whole theater to kids, but Ruttenberg said that plan fell through.
“The sad thing is that the general population doesn’t come out to support children’s theater,” he said.
Combining adult shows like Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Dinner Party with the youth productions has worked for Ruttenberg, who says that he prides himself on offering something for everyone. His approach to directing is to make things fun, for all ages.
“It’s all about the people here,” he said. “It’s about the friendships that get created between the kids and even with adults. They have more fun backstage than they do onstage—it’s just one big party.”
Like Schmidt and Ruttenberg, Shannon Beattie’s background in theater has helped train her for her job as youth director at Theatre on the Ridge in Paradise. She started out at her grandmother’s performing arts summer camp in Massachusetts as a kid, learning dance, drama and art from New York professionals.
After spending four years with Chico City Light Opera and founding a very successful youth program there called CAST (Chico Area Student Theater), Beattie took time off to have her daughter Grace and then landed her current position at TOTR.
Now she is the director of two children’s groups there: Castaways, for Chico area students, and Students on Stage, which caters to Paradise residents.
“CAST was just this huge success; we had, like, 300 kids a week in classes,” Beattie said. “And when the theater closed down, there were all these kids left around, roaming the streets, because they were there seven days a week, every moment they could be.”
Beattie says Castaways—taken from the discarded CAST name—and Students on Stage are formed through the theater classes offered at TOTR, the result being a production that the kids put together from top to bottom. While both groups run year-round, the summer classes have the added bonus of learning stage makeup and set design in addition to the basic acting and performance skills.
“We are structured, disciplined and respectful," Beattie said. "When the kids come we feel like it’s business from beginning to end. There’s a lot of respect that works both ways. I feel like everyone when they leave there feels like they’re part of a family."