This weekend, when the young actors of Stages, A Children’s Theatre Workshop, Inc. take to the Bay Street Theatre stage to sing “Food Glorious Food” the first number in the musical “Oliver!” it will be a milestone — the 75th production by the East End children’s theatre program.Â
“It’s a perfect show for us,” says Stages founder and director Helene Leonard. “It’s a great family show, a wonderful story by Dickens with familiar music. It’s a chance to reintroduce kids to a heartfelt classic from our generation. It also has great roles for kids as well as a great story for adults, all tied up in a bow for Christmas.”
“It’s a perfect memory to make with your family.”Â
In some way, “Oliver!” is a gift for Leonard as well, one that represents how far Stages has come since its inception 15 years ago — from presenting simple fairy tales to full length Broadway musicals.Â
When Leonard and her husband, Gene Stilwell (Stages president) began the program, they modeled it on the children’s theatre founded by Leonard’s father, Jerry Leonard, in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1960s.Â
Leonard credits her father, who wrote original musicals for his theater which Leonard still presents, for being the model of Stages’ success. Like her father, Leonard’s philosophy has always been the same — treat children with respect and expect the utmost in professionalism from them, and they will deliver. She has never been disappointed.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know what would and wouldn’t work,” explains Leonard. “The blueprint was all my father’s — that was in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and it still works now. His scripts still speak to this generation. After every show I think, ‘Thanks Dad.’ He always said don’t talk down to the kids, raise the bar and show them they can be as good as they can be. He said ‘You have to train them that this entrainment is for them. They don’t want to be talked down to.’ If you treat them like professionals, they’ll rise to the occasion.”
The Stages program meets afternoons during the school year at the SYS center on Major’s Path in Southampton and as a day camp in summer. It has become wildly popular among East End families. The very first Stages show featured just 14 local children. Now, Leonard says her productions star anywhere from 40 to 57 children from ages 7 to 18. For this show, they are traveling from as far as Stony Brook in the west and Amagansett in the east to take part and in summer, many kids from New York City and beyond who are here for the season join Stages.
Not only has the number of children in the program gone up in the last 15 years, but so too, notes Leonard, has the savviness of the actors and audiences.
“I think that kids have become more sophisticated in their choice of entertainment,” she says. “Not that the fairy tales aren’t wonderful, but I think we’ve gone beyond fairy tales. They want the Broadway shows — Sondheim, ‘Bye, Bye Birdie,’ ‘Oliver!’ and they’re ready. Not that they don’t want to do Cinderella, but they’d rather do ‘Into The Woods.’”
“Audiences, too, are more sophisticated and have grown with our reputation,” says Leonard.Â
That sophistication has brought certain benefits to the actors as well. Another milestone of sorts came two weeks ago when Jed Resnick, a Stages’ alumni, appeared not once, but twice, on stage as the lead character in the Broadway show “Avenue Q.” Leonard admits that with Stages, she never intended to train kids for careers on Broadway per se — but with Resnick, it certainly has been a nice side benefit.
“Our goal is not even to have kids go into acting — but those kids have become synonymous with professional training,” says Leonard, who has fielded calls from casting agents seeking actors to audition for productions such as “Billy Elliot” and the Lemony Snicket’s film.
“I also didn’t know so many kids would stay with us over the years,” she adds. “That’s been unexpected and surprising. We really have become a training ground.”
But that, explains Leonard, is just another side benefit. The real goal of Stages has been to develop in kids a level of confidence and a strong sense of self.
“Some kids come to us and they can’t speak,” says Leonard. “They don’t have the skills to communicate and aren’t the most popular kids. They don’t fit in. But they walk in the door and they find a home. They become someone else as a character.”
“The confidence it gives a child is undeniable. For me, that’s the joy,” she notes. “To see a child who’s shy at 7, can’t stand up in front of others and doesn’t know who they are then become a jubilant whole child in a short amount of time.”
“They always surprise me,” she adds. “I’ve been lucky or blessed to have had kids so dedicated and committed to what I’m doing and excited about the live theater experience.”
Leonard adds that the children of Stages also develop a great sense of camaraderie — something that doesn’t generally happen in school sports activities in which kids from different communities compete directly against one another.Â
“It’s not only multi-school, but multi generational,” says Leonard. “I see groups of kids of all ages going out together.”
The lessons children learn about life expectations and the need to work as a team are perhaps the most valuable thing they take from Stages. Leonard notes that it has been crucial for children who have grown up used to getting what they want.
“There’s a lot of ‘You owe me a living,’ sentiment out there,” Leonard says. “Kids who have never heard the word ‘no,’ or are used to getting their way. But all of a sudden they re-angle themselves and realize this is something bigger and they won’t always be the center of attention.”
“Learning to deal with disappointment is major,” she adds. “I’ve always said that the way a child deals with disappointment determines the kind of human being they will be. Very rarely do you get the part you think you’re going to get.”
“I think it’s a lesson kids might be learning right now in this economy,” she says. “I think maybe what’s important is going to come to the forefront.”
With exactly 74 productions (soon to be 75) under her Stages’ directorial belt, Leonard is also taking stock personally and notes what’s changed for her in the last 15 years.
“I’m yelling less —maybe because I’m older,” she laughs. “I’ve relaxed.”
“I’ve mellowed, but just a little. Because of our reputation, we have to be just as good as our last production. That’s scary.”
“Oliver!” by Stages, A Children’s Theatre Workshop, Inc. will be offered at the Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor on Saturday, December 20, 2008 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, December 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 725-9500 to reserve.
Above:Â The Artful Dodger (Kevin Quinn) and Oliver (Lily Spellman)