Child’s play

Local theater companies put kids’ programs in the spotlight

Greta Pugh portrays Litte Bo Peep in a rehearsal of Wild Horse Theater Company's production of <i>Babes in Toyland</i>.

Greta Pugh portrays Litte Bo Peep in a rehearsal of Wild Horse Theater Company's production of Babes in Toyland.

Photo/Eric Marks

Last week, the nation celebrated its fifth annual National Arts in Education Week. One major drama unfolding here in Washoe County and around the country is the severe lack of funding for arts education. Currently, the federal government’s Arts in Education grants program receives $25 million per year—its lowest point since its passage as part of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.

Despite the growing body of research showing that arts education leads to higher rates of graduation, lower participation in at-risk behaviors, and overall improved outcomes, arts programs in schools limp along at historically low funding levels.

In Washoe County, elementary schools offer part-time, pull-out music courses for all students, but have no dance or visual arts; theater classes exist only as electives at middle and high schools.

“The first things that get cut are the arts and music,” says Carol Scott, executive director of Wild Horse Theater Company and Children’s Theater in Carson City. “In our community, the high school has the only legitimate drama program for kids. It’s really lacking in elementary.”

“Arts education has been cut dramatically, no pun intended,” says Andi Glover, TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada’s new executive director. “[Theater studies] aren’t just for those who plan to major in theater or who want to be stars. It teaches so many things about collaboration, personal empowerment, confidence.”

Wild Horse and TWNN are among a growing number of theater companies around the Truckee Meadows who are working to fill this gap in arts instruction.

TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada

Since its founding a decade ago, TWNN has offered theater classes, workshops and performances for youths and adults alike. Glover explains that TWNN's classes provide training in all facets of production, from selection of a show to acting, costuming, set design, lighting, marketing and ticketing.

Participants deal with a range of material, from fairy tales to shows with a diverse range of mature themes, such as war, bullying and gun violence. And classes aren’t just for aspiring actors; shy kids without an ounce of experience are more than welcome. “We like students from every walk of life,” Glover says.

Classes are available for ages 5 and up. They run year-round (currently on Thursdays), and registration is monthly, with all classes culminating in performances at the Laxalt Theater downtown.

In addition to its classes, TWNN works to make theater accessible through its free Artown shows—it’s currently the only local company included in the Monday night Family Series—and its community outreach efforts.

Brüka Theatre

Brüka debuted as a children's theater 23 years ago, and has made children's offerings a prominent feature every season since. Its annual Theatre for Children production, usually a Grimms' fairy tale made socially and academically relevant, is aimed at K-6 students and families. Performances are held at Brüka Theatre, in schools and around the Truckee Meadows as part of the Pioneer Youth Programs touring roster, reaching about 8,000 kids each year.

Producing Artistic Director Mary Bennett and other theater artists with the company teach kids’ workshops as part of Brüka’s Artist in the House series, and do artist residencies in schools, working directly with students on elements of performance.

Each summer, Brüka also offers a two-week kids’ camp for ages 8-18, during which students create an original piece of theater, with help from pros, and perform it. “I give them a title and read them a story that’s accessible to kids,” Bennett says. “Then they make a show from that story.”

Brüka is also part of the Northern Nevada Cultural Coalition’s 2016 Willpower, a festival in honor of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. From April to October 2016, members of the NNCC intend to present all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays at theater companies, schools and other locations around the region. Brüka will be putting up Lamb’s Tales—staged readings of four of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Shakespeare stories for children, presented so as to make Shakespeare accessible and enjoyable for children.

Reno Little Theater

The fact that RLT recently hired a full-time educational outreach coordinator says a lot about its desire to put kids' offerings center stage. “Education is a huge factor in our strategic plan and budget,” says Sara Phillips, who holds this new position. Her task has been to determine where the needs of the community are, what currently exists and how RLT can fill the gaps.

What she’s found is that while middle and high school students often can find programs in and out of school, “pre-K through sixth grade is the most neglected age group in terms of theater and fine arts training.”

As a result, RLT offers three classes aimed at this group. They include a Mommy and Me class for ages 2 and 3, Creative Drama and Beyond, basic drama classes for pre-K through fifth graders; and Staging Stories, offered for kids in grades K-2 and 3-5, specifically emphasizing literacy skills through fairy tales and fables and developing storytelling and performance basics. Registration for six-week sessions will take place in winter and spring of 2016.

RLT’s location on the Wells Avenue corridor puts it in proximity to a diverse community with very little access to live theater, which is what prompted the creation of La Gente, RLT’s brand-new Latino theater series. The first installment, Mi Vida Gitana, a Latino retelling of Romeo and Juliet, will be a touring show; schools can contact RLT directly to book a performance.

RLT also provides short workshops and three-day camps for students during fall, winter, and spring break, and is developing a longer summer camp.

Wild Horse Theater Company

Designed to supplement what seems lacking in Carson City-area schools, Wild Horse Theater, through its children's theater program, offers student performances of its productions, so that groups of students from around the area can come to see a show for free. Area kids are always welcome to audition and participate in those shows, whether enrolled in classes or not.

Thanks to a Nevada Arts Council grant, the company also offers an after-school program for fourth- through sixth-graders. During the six-week program, which is free to schools, students put together a show that Executive Director Carol Scott says is “educational and has social value to the school and students.” The program culminates in two performances.

Additionally, the company offers master classes and workshops for kids ages 5-18; Scott says Nevada Arts Council funding keeps pricing affordable.

Goodluck Macbeth's Spotlight Youth Theatre

Established in 2012, Spotlight Youth Theatre has offered performance classes for tweens and teens. Founder and director Rachel Lopez says that when the program first started, it was more about providing accessible theater opportunities for all income levels and backgrounds. That focus was transformed last year when she wrote an original script titled In Our Own Backyard. The play about a school shooting, with its cast of 11 teens from six different schools, was first performed in January and got so much positive attention that a performance was held at the Center for Spiritual Living, and the University of Nevada will host a performance this fall. Lopez has had to put Spotlight classes on hold, but has been inspired to take the program in a new direction in 2016.

“There’s a lot of musical theater and comedy out there for youth, but I’ve noticed there aren’t a lot of plays dealing with serious subjects for teens to stretch their acting muscles,” she says. “We’ll be putting up plays that are more serious, raising awareness and raising money … so that kids are feeling like they’re giving back to the community on top of enjoying the process and being entertainers.