Youth theater an intense but rewarding experience

It's the day before opening night, and the purple curtains are drawn tight in the Lawrence Arts Center theater.

Straw peaks out from underneath the giant drapes, foretelling the barnyard setting of "Charlotte's Web." Children chatter with abandon, their voices wafting out from behind the curtain. Then come loud whispers of "Shhhhh!" and "Quiet."


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Wilbur the Pig, played by 13-year-old Alex Schriner, front left, shows off for fans during a dress rehearsal for Summer Youth Theatre's "Charlotte's Web." Chilren in grades four through seven performed the play last week at the Lawrence Arts Center.

After all, this is dress rehearsal.

The lights go down, the curtain rises on the second act and a handful of girls slink onto stage in spider costumes. They're the farm version of a Greek chorus, narrating the story of Wilbur the pig. Soon, the stage is swimming with nearly 40 fourth- through seventh-graders

The show, which opened Thursday and wrapped up Saturday, was the culmination of nearly a month's work for these children. They've been rehearsing about four hours a day as part of the arts center's Summer Youth Theatre program.

Sounds like a lot of work, but these budding thespians wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's really cool," said Jessie Waller, the 11-year-old girl who played Fern in "Charlotte's Web." "I want to do it next year."

Downstairs from the theater, older students rehearse the music from "Funny Girl," the story of Ziegfield star Fanny Brice's climb to stardom. The schedule for these eighth- through 12th-graders has been even more rigorous: 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, but no one's complaining here, either.

"We're here seven hours a day, but you're friends are all around you," said 14-year-old Nathan Mack, who plays the stage manager. "I love it."

¢ "Jump & Jive," 11 a.m. Saturday, grades K-3.¢ "Funny Girl," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. June 29, grades 8-12.¢ "The Poems of Shel Silverstein," 11 a.m. July 12, grades K-3.¢ "Bye Bye Birdie," 7:30 p.m. July 17-18, 2 p.m. July 19, grades 4-7.¢ "MacBeth," 7:30 p.m. July 24-26, 2 p.m. July 27, grades 8-12.For more information or to buy tickets, call the Lawrence Arts Center at 843-2787.

"Funny Girl" runs Thursday through June 29.

Bringing out imagination

Most everyone knows the story of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." An affectionate but bashful pig named Wilbur befriends a spider named Charlotte, who saves Wilbur from the fate that befalls those of porcine persuasion by spinning words into her webs that suggest Wilbur is anything but ordinary.

The children cherish the story.

"It was one of my favorite books when I was little because my mom read it to me all the time," said Alex Schriner, the 13-year-old girl who dons pig ears and tail to play Wilbur.

Tommy Cottin, 13, provides comic relief as Templeton the rat. He stumbles onto stage after a night of carousing at the county fair, and his stomach has swelled to three times its normal size.

"I had no idea how hot the pillows were going to be," Cottin said after dress rehearsal. "I'm still kind of hot from it."

Like many of the other children taking part in Summer Youth Theatre, Cottin aspires to a career in theater or film.

"I'm planning on being an actor when I grow up," said the teen, whose previous credits include "A Kansas Nutcracker" and three plays at Kansas University, including last season's production of "Iphigenia at Aulis." "I always try to open up to different shows and everything."


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Cast members in Summer Youth Theatre's production of "Funny Girl" prepare for a recent rehearsal. Erin McDowell, front left, plays Fanny Brice, the aspiring Vaudeville actress on which the play focuses. The show opens Thursday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

Cheryl Weaver, who directed "Charlotte's Web," applauded the students' hard work after Wednesday's rehearsal.

"They're terrific, and they've worked very, very hard," she said.

The theater program benefits the children in so many ways, she said.

"It gives them a lot of self-esteem and a sense of invention," she said. "It brings out the imagination for kids, and they're learning a nice skill in terms of the art."

Surpassing expectations

Barbara Streisand played Fanny Brice in the original Broadway cast of "Funny Girl," which opened in 1964. She later won an Oscar for her performance in the 1968 film version. Her hit "People" comes from the show.

The Summer Youth Theatre production still focuses on Fanny, played by 16-year-old Erin McDowell, but it shines the spotlight more broadly. For instance, McDowell is joined by several other female voices during "People."

McDowell, who's past youth theater credits include "Into the Woods," "Wizard of Oz," "Carnival" and "Oliver," said "Funny Girl" has turned out to be one of her favorite shows.

"We're moving along really quickly. We wasted no time. We got into it the first day," she said. "We've got a whole week still, and we're polishing the show."

Erin Girard, who's directing the musical, has been having a ball with her energetic cast, even as she pushes them to excel.

"Talk about a great group of kids," she said. "We've been working them and working them and rehearsing. They're getting good training from people who have been in the business.

"Sometimes I wonder if we're expecting too much, but they keep living up to it."

Perhaps part of their motivation stems from the fact that they're learning from professional actors, directors, choreographers, artists and designers.

Students like Schriner, who gets a twinkle in her eye when she talks about her future, appreciate the expert attention.

"I plan to go pro," she said.


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