Stage struck students get taste of theater

At any given time, the 32 students of the Claremont School of Theatre Arts can be found laughing, dancing, improvising and generally having a blast. And if you could harness the energy of these fledgling thespians, ranging from sixth to ninth grade and headquartered at Pomona College, you could power a small city.

Instead, their high spirits are being channeled into  Mary Fengar Gail’s Tales of the Windship, a play they’ll perform at the college’s Allen Theater from July 26-29.

The Claremont School of Theatre Arts (CSTA) has provided a safe and sacred place for creativity since it was founded in 1994 by Curtain Raisers of the Claremont Colleges and Pomona College’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The 5-week summer program aims “to expose young minds to the wonderful world of theater, teaching them problem-solving skills, sparking imaginations and nurturing creativity.”

Participants take classes in acting, movement, improvisation and costuming from 1 to 3:45 p.m. After a quick snack break, they head to the cool, black-painted and black-curtained theater to rehearse. 

“I think it’s the best program for children that there is, as far as theater goes. Period. It’s brilliant,” said CSTA artistic director Olivia Parker.

Ms. Parker, who teaches theater at San Bernardino High School, is not just speaking from a professional perspective.  Her mother, an active Curtain Raiser, was one of the founders of CSTA, so she attended the program’s inaugural session at age 11.

Between her experiences with CSTA and her time in Krista Elhai’s theater classes at Claremont High School, Ms. Parker became hooked on acting.

“I think it’s really neat to be able to be comfortable on stage pretending to be someone else. It’s kind of like Halloween every day—I always liked that,” Ms. Parker said. “Even if you’re just watching theater, it’s fun to sit and forget about everything else for a little bit and get involved with something artistic in front of you.”

The spirit of theatrical escape is epitomized by 13-year-old Kelly McGarry, who plays one of 4 “Whiffinpuffs,” sprite-like characters who narrate the 7 sketches that make up Tales of the Windship.  Of her character’s personality, which is that of a “ditzy airhead,” she jokes, “I can do it easily.”

Kelly, a previously homeschooled Claremonter who will attend St. Dorothy’s School in Glendora this fall, has rave reviews for the CSTA.

“I love acting, and I love Olivia and I love all the teachers and interns,” she said. “I love being with the other actors, too. You kind of become a family.”

But it’s a lot of hard work.

Along with memorizing their lines, these theater-minded youths will learn how to work with lighting, props and costuming. “They do absolutely everything,” Ms. Parker said.

Lucía—who in the course of Tales of the Windship  plays a milkmaid, a wheat field and Siofra, an Irish girl who runs away—has enjoyed the costuming aspect. For her role as Siofra, she will wear a pretty green dress that looks a bit ragged from the runaway’s slightly creepy adventure. For her other part as a wheat field, she painted wheat on a grocery bag¸ cut holes for her head and arms, and added shiny embellishments.

Rehearsals for the family-friendly play are going well, said assistant director Greg McGoon, who first came to CSTA as a participant 16 years ago. As a 6th grader, he had a great time in a play called Flying Colors.  After CSTA, he moved onto Krista Elhai’s theater troupe.

But the acting bug never went away.

After graduating with a degree in psychology from the University of San Diego, Mr. McGoon moved to New York, where he performs off-Broadway productions and various original works. He returns to CSTA, where he is currently serving as a movement and acting teacher, each summer. It’s about giving back.

“I feel like this program allows students going into high school to have a well-rounded approach to theater—the technical as well as the performance side,” he said.

Students really benefit from the collaborative nature of the performances, Mr. McGoon noted. 

“The program allows students to give input into their character development. It’s not just teachers telling the students what to do,” he said. “It becomes a group effort in order to allow everyone’s voice to come through.”

From taking the stage to taking a stand, CSTA participants gain greater self-confidence along with the knowledge of what it takes to put on a show. The program is also a great place to make lifelong friends.

CHS sophomore Riley Evans, who attended CSTA from 6th to 8th grade, has fond memories of her first production, Canterbury Tales. 

“I played the Grim Reaper, my favorite part,” she said.

Riley, who is in Krista Elhai’s theater classes, is helping out as a CSTA intern this year. It’s the friendly atmosphere that keeps her coming back. 

“Theater kids have a lot of energy. They’re completely different from everybody else, but they’re the same as each other,” she said. “They’re all weird and quirky, and that’s me, so that’s where I belong.”

CSTA will present Tales of the Windship at 7 p.m. on July 26-28 and 2 p.m. on July 28-29. The $10 admission ($8 for kids ages 2-12) helps support the program, which this year offered 4 scholarships to lower-income students.  

The Allen Theater is located on the Pomona College campus at 300 E. Bonita Ave. For information, call 607-4396.

—Sarah Torribio


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