Theatre for the children, by the children and with the children

This article first appeared on Theatre People.

Most performers could tell you about a defining moment when they realised they wanted to be on the stage. It could be a show, a performer, a role or any moment that captured your imagination and introduced you to the world of the theatre.

For me, that moment came in 2002 when I went along to see some friends in a community children’s theatre production of A Kidsummer Night’s Dream (a junior adaptation of the Shakespeare classic).

The company was Sleeping Star Productions, which stages annual musical productions for a cast of children aged 7-14. Now in its 14th year, the eastern suburbs-based company is run by a passionate group of volunteers including everyone from founding members to ‘graduates’ – past performers who have exceeded the age of 14 and have remained with the company to assist with production and committee roles.

Lead by the philosophy that ‘every child is a sleeping star just waiting to be woken’ and marching to the vision ‘For the children, By the children, With the children’, Sleeping Star takes a unique position nestled between production company and drama school.

A culture of inclusion means that every child who signs up is cast; regardless of whether they nailed their audition or were too nervous to go through with it. Auditions are held to assist the rehearsal team in casting larger roles and to give the kids valuable audition experience.

Miss Hannigan, Rooster Hannigan and Lily St Regis – Annie Jr 2013

 

SSP Founder and current committee member Joyce Sedunary said this inclusion was what drove her to start the company.

“More often than not it seems in theatre productions only the “best” are chosen to perform or be given lead roles. This really bothered me and I wanted any child that wanted to be included in theatre to be given that chance. I wanted them to experience feeling like a star and hearing that applause.

“The idea was not to put on the most polished and perfect show but to put on a show which brought out the best in each child, and most of all that each child had fun, built their self esteem and confidence and learned about the love of theatre.”

Kids are introduced to the terminology and etiquette of the theatre. They are taught the difference between upstage and downstage, they learn how to project their voices and sing as part of an ensemble. They also build lasting friendships and develop confidence in themselves, their bodies and their abilities. They learn to recognise and be proud of their own talents, and to appreciate the talents of others.

Kirsty Wolters is currently the choreographer at SSP, and her two children have both performed in multiple productions.

“Sleeping Star Productions has provided my two children with the wonderful and unique opportunity of exploring, with like-minded children, their love of the stage in a caring and supportive learning environment,” Kirsty said.

“The annual July production has become the highlight of our year. My son and daughter love the friendships they have formed and I love the confidence they have developed through their involvement in Sleeping Star. Both children cannot imagine a time when they will not be  either acting on stage or assisting with the backstage crew – Sleeping Star is like a big, happy, theatrical family!”

Annie – Annie Jr 2013

While budgets are kept at a minimum and production values are not the main focus however, the shows produced are still of an impressive standard. Performing in a full-size theatre, the talented team of parents and volunteers turned directors, stage managers, costume coordinators and set designers turn out a high-quality production every year.

Long-time committee member, ticket coordinator and stage manager Robyn Hazlett enjoys seeing the young cast’s reactions when they can see the show starting to come together.

“It has been a privilege and a great experience for me to be backstage to see the concentration, excitement, nervous energy of the young cast. The thrill as they try on their costumes, see the sets and props for the first time and I am always so impressed at how well they ‘rise to the occasion’ and perform so well onstage,” said Robyn.

However, even if you took away the intricately-sewn costumes and beautiful, elaborate sets; the pure enthusiasm and enjoyment on the faces of each and every one of the children on stage (and parents in the theatre) is enough to have you grinning in your seat.

Perhaps one of the most moving aspects of Sleeping Star is that many graduates like myself have chosen to stay with the company once they exceed the age limit for performing; slowly taking on committee, production and rehearsal team roles.

Aaron Blakemore performed in a number of productions with SSP and has for the last few years taken on the role of Musical Director. Like many of the children in the cast, he can’t imagine a time when he wouldn’t be involved.

“I learnt so much being in the cast about life in the theatre that set me up for being on the other side of the curtain. To be honest I wouldn’t want to leave – being a part of sleeping star is such a big part of my life,” said Aaron.

This transition to including more graduates was once a pipe dream for founder Joyce, and she is thrilled to see it becoming a reality.

“I think that the power of SSP is how good it makes the children feel, and because of this we have so many graduates return as young adults to help and be involved. We now have original cast members directing, choreographing and assisting backstage,” she said.

“This is such a fantastic outcome and I love how the group has come full circle. Because the graduates remember how they felt, and all the positives they experienced, they are keen to pass on their knowledge and skills.”

The Rehearsal Team

 

As a graduate of Sleeping Star myself and now a member of the rehearsal team, I can’t explain ardently enough how valuable being involved in the theatre was to me as a child. With every production, Sleeping Star welcomes a cast of new and returning faces, and the continual growth of the company illustrates just how important a role it plays in the local community and in the lives of these children and their families.

SSP was the driving force behind my lifelong love affair with the theatre. The volunteers who ran SSP when I was a child inspired me to improve my skills and taught me to believe in my own abilities. It is a privilege and a pleasure to think that my involvement now could have the same impact on another shy, little 10-year-old just dipping their toes into performing.

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