By Dustin Turner
Many of today’s adult actors, directors, board of director members and others got their start in the Aiken Community Playhouse’s Youth Wing, a free monthly gathering of children in grades 4-12 who meet for a couple of hours on a Saturday to learn the ins and outs of the theater world.
According to Youth Wing Executive Director Nancy Hansen, The Youth Wing’s mission statement says a lot: To provide the broadest range of theatrical experience and education we can to the greatest number of young people we can while maintaining the highest level of quality we can in a safe and welcoming haven.
“We are passionate about presenting the dramatic arts to any interested young people in a fun, dynamic way,” Hansen Says. “Theater provides so many life lessons, and there are so many opportunities to teach life skills and connect with kids in an authentic and meaningful way.”
A Place To Shine
As school budgets have tightened, there are now fewer opportunities for children to be exposed to the theatrical arts, and the Youth Wing aims to fill that gap. “So many kids are looking for a place to belong and explore who they are and what they might become,” Hansen says. “At the same time, many have learned to hold back, to hide their differences or creative sides for fear of being different or singled out. In theater, we celebrate our differences and embrace them.”
About 60 to 90 children each month attend the free workshops. “We always have someone new each time,” Hansen says, “and new students are welcome anytime. No preregistration is needed.”
In 2011, then-Executive Director Jim Anderson introduced the Immersion Program and the Broadway Bound (now, Broadway & Beyond) fundraiser. “Initially, the focus was on taking a group of students to New York City to participate in the Broadway Student Summit, an advanced educational program with working Broadway professionals,” Hansen says. “Jim and other talented local adults put together a Broadway revue show. We went to New York, and a whole new ‘wing’ of our program was born. Last year, we changed the name to ‘Broadway & Beyond’, because it better reflected the direction we were taking.”
The group supports more advanced workshops now than just going to New York—Camp Broadway in Atlanta, the South Carolina Theater Association conference and the South Eastern Theatre Conference conventions. “We were extending the benefits of the funds raised to the entire Youth Wing rather than just the ones selected for New York,” she says.
Each season, two Youth Wing shows are built into main season of the Aiken Community Playhouse, one on the mainstage and one in the Bechtel Experimental Theatre. The Youth Wing has a template to help guide their selections. Hansen explains: “First, we want shows that challenge our kids and expose them to a full range of theater. We try to balance our years among dramas, classics, comedies, farces and ‘issue’ plays. We need large casts, since we have so many in our program, so there is that parameter. We aim for a musical every other year. In the fall, we present something in the Bechtel Experimental Theatre. This show is usually edgier, more challenging and usually in direct support of our local school curricula or addressing a serious teen issue.”
Though many theaters’ youth programs tend to focus on traditional family fare or abbreviated Disney musicals, the ACP Youth Wing runs directly toward shows with more adult content. “The Youth Wing is the educational wing of ACP, so, while we want to produce shows that audiences enjoy and attend, we also want to expose the kids to challenging material,” Hansen says. “Additionally, doing shows with strong emotional content can also provide a deep and meaningful opportunity for discussions. For instance, during ‘The Crucible’, we talked about the McCarthy hearings and the way, right now, people can be demonized for holding different beliefs. The ‘Laramie Project’, about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepherd, opened up deep feelings about discrimination and hate crimes. ‘The Day Billy Lived’ dealt with teen suicide, and ‘Bang Bang You’re Dead’ led to heartfelt sharing about bullying and school violence. Sometimes, dealing with a controlled script about difficult topics can help in finding positive ways to handle one’s own difficult times.”
Learning Life Skills
Just because the Youth Wing is associated with a theater and performs shows annually does not mean that the students are being pushed toward theater degrees in college or performing arts careers. In fact, the skills taught often are applicable to real life.
Skills such as “thinking on one’s feet, handling missteps and forgotten lines without losing one’s poise, maintaining focus even with distractions all around—what job doesn’t benefit by having these attributes? Auditions are job interviews—we tell the kids over and over: ‘Your audition begins the minute you come through the door. How you dress, how you greet us, how prepared you are, how you conduct yourselves while waiting your turn all are making an impression on the directors. We’ve almost made up our minds in the first few seconds we see you.’ We teach the kids to thank the directors when they are finished. Huge life skills! When we’re in a show, we have to trust each other, and help each other—if one person struggles and doesn’t know their lines or blocking, the entire cast suffers, so we support our fellow castmates.”
Former Youth Wing member Gray Johnson agrees: “I have been out of the Youth Wing for four years now, and I use skills every day that I learned from the Youth Wing. I cannot express how much I love this program and the people in it.”
Though Hansen says there are many personal success stories, she is quick to point out Broadway & Beyond and the immersion program. “I actually do not know of another program like ours that offers so much and is free and open to all interested kids, whether they stay with it for a month or the full nine years. The number of adults who give hours and hours of their time to teach classes, design and build sets, direct shows and perform in the Broadway & Beyond fundraiser is astounding. To be able to bring professionals here to Aiken and to take kids to amazing workshops through the Immersion Fund is incredibly satisfying.”
Kimmy Dunn, who only spent two years in Youth Wing and now is finishing her first year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, says: “I think I finally found where I fit in when I got involved in the Youth Wing. As cheesy as it may sound, it was my home away from home and my community. Through the program, not only did I learn new acting techniques and play fun acting games, but I also grew so much as a person. What I learned most through this program is the undeniable value of kindness and acceptance. Because there is nothing greater than being accepted for your true authentic self.
Dustin Turner is Associate Travel Editor for wheretraveler.com. He has been married to his wife, Jamie, for 18 years and they are the proud parents of 8-year-old Abigail. The Turners stay busy with community theater and wine-making.
This article appears in the May-June 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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