Summer theater program draws in enthusiastic students

This summer is a happy blur for Claremont High School junior Riley Evans.

Since late June, she has served as an intern with the Claremont School of Theatre Arts, a job that will culminate with performances by the program’s 6th through 9th grade participants on July 25-27.

Then there’s the cross-country practice that begins at 5:30 a.m. And earlier in the summer, she headed east with her family to explore the campuses of Boston University, Drexel University in Philadelphia and Sarah Lawrence College, NYU and Hofstra University in New York, with an eye on finding a college with a good film program.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the UCLA writing class that’s about to start, which focuses on writing before college. 

Still, she has that niggling feeling she should be doing more.

“I need to get back to volunteering,” she said, referring to work she has done at the nearby Hillside senior community for the past 2 summers.

This past Tuesday, when asked if she ever has any free time, Riley ducked the question, noting that she had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. that morning in preparation for her cross-country training and that the previous day “I didn’t go home for 14 hours.”

Keeping busy is not just a summer fling for Riley.

She will see her school responsibilities grow exponentially this year when she embarks on CHS’s International Baccalaureate program, a 2-year course of study whose graduates enjoy higher acceptance rates at their colleges of choice and are often granted college credit for their work.

Along with her participation on the cross-country team, she is also an enthusiastic participant in Krista Elhai’s thespian troupe and a regular participant in the ongoing CHS Comedy Sports Improv program. While her plate is full, she’s considering going out for speech and debate.

When asked why she does so much, Riley answers simply, “I want to be as involved as I can.”

Riley is serving as assistant stage manager for the Claremont School of Theater Arts’ (CSTA) production of “African Folktales,” a collection of stories following the exploits of Anansi, a trickster spider who is the hero of many traditional African tales. It’s a real ensemble piece for the 34 boys and girls of CSTA, many of whom will take on as many as 3 or 4 roles.

“It’s such a rich cultural background,” Riley said of the production.

It’s a visually and percussively vivid show. Whether they are portraying humans or animals, the kids, swathed in colorful African cloths and wearing handmade masks, must be prepared to move, dance and generally weave storytelling magic. Several performers perch on large boxes that double as cajon-style box drums.

On Tuesday, Riley joined CSTA artistic director Olivia Parker and assistant director/stage manager Greg McGoon in the cool recesses of Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre, helping students block out the folktales. Given the play’s fast pace, getting kids on their marks and set to go was a bit like herding cats. Riley was game, however, whether filling in for a missing actor or demonstrating a good snake dance for those playing the slithery characters.

She also found time for laughs with the students, who count their diminutive mentor as one of their own, and on whom she has, almost to a kid, bestowed with nicknames.

“I think Riley’s nice. She’s very involved and responsible, and she’s very into things,” said 14-year-old Kelly McGarry, who has been dubbed “Barbie” by Riley. “She manages a lot—she’s always late and always doing something.”

CSTA, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary of operation, is co-sponsored by The Curtain Raisers of the Claremont Colleges and Pomona College’s Department of Theatre and Dance. Uncommon Good and The Curtain Raisers work to provide scholarships for many participants.

Kelly has a palpable enthusiasm for CSTA, which includes classes in performance arts such as improve, movement and voice training as well as the production. The confidence and enjoyment she derives exemplifies the program’s goals “to expose young minds to the wonderful world of theater, teaching them problem-solving skills, sparking imaginations and nurturing creativity.”

The student at St. Dorothy’s in Glendora is being kept busy with 3 roles in
“African Folkales,” that of a monkey, a palace attendant and a storyteller.

“I love CSTA because I love acting,” she said. “We’re all like family here, especially the veterans, because acting kind of brings you together. You’re nervous together. You go through everything together.”

One thing many of the creative minds behind CSTA share is a connection with the theater program at the local high school. Ms. Parker, who is a theater teacher and thespian director at San Bernardino High School, is e an alumna of Ms. Elhai’s CHS theater program. Mr. McGoon, a New York based actor/artist who flies out each year to be part of CSTA, is also a product of Ms. Elhai’s program. Both also participated in CSTA when they were younger. Along with Riley, there are also several other current CHS thespians serving as interns.

The crossover largely has to do with geographic proximity, but is an example how the 2 programs work hand-in-hand to provide onstage and backstage activities for local youths interested in theatre. It’s about giving young people, just entering the often-awkward phase of adolescence, the chance to be themselves.

“It’s allowing them to be comfortable inside their bodies,” Mr. McGoon said.

Ms. Parker loves the participatory focus of CSTA, which is amplified in “African Folktales” because there are so many small but crucial roles.

“Once you hit high school, college and the professional world, you may never get a part again,” she said. “You may be in the background, you may be overlooked. Here, everyone gets a chance.”

Performances of “African Tales” will be held July 25-27 at 7 p.m. and July 27 and 28 and 2 p.m. in the Virginia Princehouse Allen Theatre at the Seaver Theater complex at Pomona College, 300 E. Bonita Ave.

Tickets, which are is $10 and $8 for children ages 2-11, can be reserved by calling (909) 607-4396.

—Sarah Torribio


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