I often feel like I live in my car. Hundreds of miles in a dusty sedan littered with granola-bar wrappers and the sweaty water bottles of absent-minded children. Hostile demands for the soundtracks to Hamilton or Waitress are usually the only greeting I get when picking them up from school, and then it’s off to the races.
Soccer practice for the oldest, followed by guitar lessons, dance, knitting — and then there’s theater. Most of their activities are only one day a week. Even soccer, which elicits a few grumbles when there’s a tournament, doesn’t compare to the agony of being part of a full-length musical production.
Yes, it’s true: Few things are as demanding as theater life. Yet plenty of dedicated parents and faithful instructors know that few things are as worth the caffeine-induced effort. The schedules are grueling, the productions are almost always underfunded and understaffed, and — given the ages of the main players — rehearsals tend to look like herding cats with tiny bladders.
Seriously, try drawing feline whiskers on a wiggling 8-year-old.
Fortunately, Eugene is home to three incredible youth arts programs: Rose Children’s Theatre, Upstart Crow Children’s Theatre and the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts. All three organizations empower and nurture our youngest and most vulnerable citizens through their own unique perspective and experience of theatrical arts.
Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with members and students from each of the organizations, all of whom graciously shared with me the joys and struggles of children’s theater. I was surprised how different these three houses were, and yet none of them disagreed on the endless value of the arts for children, and the lasting benefits for them as instructors, the students and our community.
After we briefly commiserated over the long nights spent hammering and painting, sewing and chauffeuring, Andy McNamara, board member and longtime parent volunteer of Rose’s Children’s Theatre, shared with me his perspective as a loving father of two Rose veterans and, more recently, as part of the inner workings of the company.
Founded by Celeste Rose in the late 1970s, and becoming a nonprofit in 1989, Rose Children’s Theatre has grown by leaps and bounds, McNamara says. Producing at least four musicals a year, most of which are performed at the Wildish Community Theater in Springfield, Rose has several artistic directors on staff, including choreographers, voice coaches and, of course, parent and student participation.
As a father, one of the things McNamara appreciates is the way children’s theater exposes kids to life in all its variety. “To watch them interact,” he says, “they learn about different personalities. Meeting new people of different backgrounds — it’s such a valuable skill in life.”
He notes the difficulty of managing some of the larger productions they’ve taken on; after all, young thespians don’t always have the greatest attention spans, directors aren’t always patient and parents often forget (or are simply unaware of) the enormous effort needed to make one very famous British nanny fly.
The RCT staff understands that, as the theater continues to grow, it must also make the process smoother for everyone. In addition to big musical productions, RCT offers classes to help guide youths artistically.
From the obvious voice lessons to instructions on how best to take a head shot, the theater is committed to helping its students evolve their talent and passions beyond childhood and adolescence, with several of young theater-types going on to pursue the arts professionally.
McNamara’s 12-year-old daughter, Tilly, is a bubbly veteran of Rose Children’s Theatre. With several productions under her belt — Shrek being her favorite (who wouldn’t love being on stage with a dragon?) — Tilly expressed to me her love of theater and, more importantly, the community of friends and family around her. She says she especially loves the dancing and the choreography involved in the productions.
She acknowledges the special bonds that are made when taking part in something that can be arduous yet inexplicably magical.
This idea of community that Tilly energetically speaks about is the soul of the performing arts.