I n a city full of arts and arts critics, professional or otherwise, one dramatic troupe is aiming their art at a picky audience indeed: kids.
Okay—they’re actually not that picky when it comes to theater, but it still helps if the players and producers are. The Yale Children’s Theatre is a group of Yale University undergraduates that get a kick out of delighting children with original, age-appropriate drama, and they’re preparing to do it again this weekend with the first production of the semester.
The 20 or so members of the troupe “love theater, but [we] really love kids,” says Nicole De Santis, the group’s artistic director. That might explain why they’re willing to sacrifice late nights for rehearsals and weekends for performances and workshops. Between 10:45 and 11 p.m. on a recent Monday, during a practice run-through for this weekend’s play, the group’s board took notes and prepared the actors by pretending to be a crowd of young kids, shouting out when prompted during the interactive moments of the script.
In addition to public-facing plays, the group’s members host drama workshops throughout the year for children of various ages. “Hands On,” a class intended for kindergarteners through second graders, introduces young kids to games that encourage confidence and self-expression. Children in third through fifth grade can take part in a similar class called “Off Book,” while middle school students can enroll in “Curtain Call,” which teaches theater fundamentals.
Each of the programs runs for eight weeks twice a year, on weekends, and is taught by members of YCT. There’s an application process to enroll, but those who do can attend the workshops for free, short of a suggested $50 donation.
The workshops serve about 80 children from throughout the region, De Santis says, adding that “the progression that you see in children over the course of the class” keeps YCT members passionate about what they do. If, say, kids are asked to pretend to be a robot on day one, “They absolutely will not do it because they feel uncomfortable,” she says. After a few weeks, however, those same children become willing to reach outside their comfort zone. “You really see these kids blossom,” and so do mom and dad. “We get a lot of emails from parents saying they notice a significant improvement in their child’s self-confidence.”
The group’s two original plays per semester are written, produced and directed by members. This weekend’s shows, offered at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday in Old Campus’s Dwight Hall (67 High St, New Haven; $5 suggested donation), is called Stanley’s Great Big Adventure. It tells the story of young Stanley, who’s been feeling neglected by his older brother Robbie. But when Robbie is abducted by an evil witch, Stanley rises to the occasion, embarking on a fantastical quest to save him. He gets some help from new friends he makes along the way, including a lizard, a turtle and a sheeny, preening bird.
The play, like all of YCT’s shows, is written to engage the youngest members of the audience. Characters on stage often ask children in the crowd for “help” with making decisions about what to do next. Timed to accommodate short attention spans, shows typically run about 40 minutes and are best suited for children under 8 or 9.
YCT’s members are all volunteers, and they aren’t necessarily drama majors. Emily Klopfer, an English major and the writer/director of Stanley’s Great Big Adventure, says, “I like writing children’s plays because for them, nothing is impossible.” She enjoys giving kids the chance “to experience magic and to feel that magic still exists in the world. I think our bold dreams can sometimes be dashed too soon.”
Following the performance of an adaptation of Peter Pan she wrote and directed last year, she recalls a little boy approaching the actor playing Peter, asking, “Peter, will you take me on your next adventure?” Says Klopfer, “Nothing beats an audience like that.”
Yale Children’s Theatre
presenting Stanley’s Great Big Adventure
Dwight Hall – 67 High St, New Haven (map)
Sat-Sun, Oct. 4-5, at 11 a.m. & 1 p.m.
$5 suggested donation
Written by Cara Rosner. Photographed by Dan Mims.