Theater for the shy By stephanie Emma PfefferToo often, the thrill of performing onstage is known only to outgoing children with years of arts training. Not so if you go to Kids’ Productions, a Libertyville Parks and Recreation drama program. Getting a lead role is as simple as being one of the first to walk through the door.
The first 15 students who enroll in the main stage production class for 9- to 14-year-olds are guaranteed a speaking part in the performance, says co-director Linda Klepac.
“It’s not a cutthroat environment,” says Klepac. “You just need to come and give us what you’ve got.
“It’s important that all kids get a chance to experience theater,” says Klepac, explaining that less sociable children are often excluded from audition-based drama groups.
Auditions are not the normal in-the-spotlight solo readings; even warm-up games serve as a casting tool.
Klepac and co-director Less Boyd closely observe the students’ ability to listen, take direction and respond, which takes some pressure off of students who initially are intimidated. Boyd says, “We try to accommodate the kids more than you would in a real audition, but they still get a sense of the process.”
And they can try out for as many parts as they want.
“No matter what part you get, the directors make sure you have a good time and you love what you’re doing,” says 12-year-old Annie Gerard, who’s been involved with Kids’ Productions for three years and plays Gwen in the upcoming musical “King Artie and the Knights of the Rad Table.” She’s had all types of roles in the past, but this is her first lead. “You get out of it what you put into it,” Gerard says.
When selecting a show, the directors try to find one that has many characters and an equal distribution of speaking lines. “Ultimately, we look for plays that are going to be enjoyable for the kids,” says Boyd. Even smaller roles are cast carefully; everything from singing ability to physical attributes is considered. Often, students selected for small roles are awarded second and third roles, giving them more time on stage.
In “King Artie,” an oh-so-contemporary Gwen and Artie are escorted back to Medieval times by Merlin, only to find the knights are more silly than chivalrous. “It has a cleaned-up Monty Python flavor to it,” says Klepac. “So the humor is goofy and quirky but very fun and very physical.”
Since its inception in 1996, the year-round program, partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, has grown to include voice lessons, parent-taught classes and classes for 3- and 4-year-olds.
The inspiration for an accessible arts program was Klepac’s small Wisconsin hometown, where there were few artistic options. “Many kids were lost if they didn’t fit into the sports group or the academic group,” she explains. “They didn’t have the opportunity to shine.”
At Kids’ Productions, students do more than shine; they become little stars. The main stage class aims to increase confidence, improve public speaking and demonstrate how to create a production from start to finish. Best of all, it’s a non-threatening way for children to express themselves.
“You don’t have to worry about anything,” says Jake Becker, 14, a six-year Kids’ Productions veteran, who plays Artie. “You think, ‘I’m here, I’ll have fun, I’ll get a role anyway, it’ll be what fits me and I will be able to do it.’”
But is the performance compromised by the all-accepting policy? No way, says Klepac. “That’s our job; we assume the kids come to us with nothing more than a desire to learn.” By using improvisational games in a nurturing atmosphere and matching learning tools to individual skills, the directors transform a handful of excited kids into a successful theatrical ensemble.
“Everybody can do it,” Klepac says. “If you have the desire, you can perform.”
“King Artie and the Knights of the Rad Table” performances are at 7 p.m. April 11, 12 and 3 p.m. April 13. Tickets are $3 in advance, $4 at the door and $2 for senior citizens. Enrollment is underway for the eight-week summer session, which begins June 16. Cost is $270 for Libertyville residents and $275 for non-residents. For information, call (847) 367-0774.