An NCT Intern's Experience

By Denee Stewart Freeman

Growing up as a theatre kid in town, Nashville Children’s Theatre was an integral part of my childhood. Whether it was seeing the theatre’s production of Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse or performing “Stone Soup” onstage during a summer camp, my family and I always felt the love of children and arts at the dragon guarded theatre.

This summer it’s been my joy to experience that love in a new way - no longer as a camper or audience member, but as a part of NCT’s internship program: a ten week opportunity for college students to gain experience either as a media intern, teaching intern, or production intern.

NCT is a stronghold for the arts and education, intertwined with both Nashville as a city and the larger Theatre for Young Audience (TYA) Community, so it only makes sense that many of us interns found this summer internship through those connections. Many had memories of direct experience with NCT or knew someone who worked as an intern or teaching artist, brought into the NCT family in an individualized way.

NCT is a place focused on people, and our bosses made that abundantly clear from the moment training started, where Alicia Fuss, Colin Peterson, and Jackie Komos worked to make sure we were equipped with the tools to teach kids, manage conflict, and take care of ourselves.

As one second year summer intern, Haleigh Johnson, said: “It’s such an amazing work environment. Our three bosses are all so amazing and supportive… always making sure we are ok and listening to any problems we have. They are so loving and willing to help us.”

That care is obvious in the many support systems built into the program and everyday moments. It’s the surprise of cupcakes in the green room on National Intern Day. It’s in the Wednesday Intern Summits, where all summer camp interns come together to check in and learn from one another. It’s the time they spent with me to review the Parent Photo Blog, teaching me how to gear content towards a specific audience like a parent who wants to know their child is having meaningful fun. “They care as much about what you are learning, as the work that you are doing,” reiterates intern, Megan Huggins.

And the internship is work. It’s challenging work that forces you to grow as person, educator, theatre artist, creator of media, and more.

For summer camp interns, each week brings something new: a new teaching artist with a new teaching style, a new age group, a new story to tell onstage, or different creative drama play to engage in. The teaching artists work with the intern’s strengths and encourage them to practice in areas where they feel less confident, whether it be leading warm ups, theatre games, crafts, dramatizing a story book, or staging a piece. NCT is a safe space to learn the important skill of facilitation, because there’s always a “safety net.”

And of course, there are Friday Sharings, where camps of ages 6-18 perform the piece they’ve worked on all week for their friends and family on the main NCT stage.  “There’s that moment of relief and happiness and joy that the campers have for themselves after they’ve accomplished their show,” said Haleigh. Though some weeks can be draining, all interns agree the reward of Sharing is well worth it. “Anything that happened, everything kind of get revitalized when I see the kids go up,” Lexi Bresnan emphasized. Each week there is at least one of us out in the house crying or almost crying.

As a media intern, the experience has been about independence and balance. Unable to be in eight places at once, I learned time management in how to best tell and photograph the story of each camp’s day.

Whether by writing the captions or, for me, the photography, the internship stretches you into a more well rounded media developer. Any additional project idea I had was met with excitement and support from Colin and the marketing staff at NCT. On Fridays with no blog, there was a freedom of “What am I interested in adding?”

For Jhonna King, the media internship provided the opportunity to gain filming experience outside of school with children as the unique subject. In that subject she found a focus that defied structure. Capturing those beautiful, candid moments challenged her by removing the option of simply staging the clips.

Though we weren’t assigned to a single class, Jhonna and I were constantly with kids. In a way it was the best of both worlds; “Video and editing is my passion, but kids are my unconditional love,” Jhonna said. Between lunch and time in the classroom, you do form relationships. There’s an important balance of immersing yourself in order to truly be able to convey the magic that is happening in the classroom.

On the production side, there are the stage management and costuming internships. Both work on the Summer Drama School productions day in and out, whether at rehearsals or traveling between fittings and the costume shop.

Besides the friendships and professional connections with NCT staff, being able to work with high schoolers planning to study theatre at college, like themselves, was a really valued piece. Emma Cox expressed being so grateful to bond with a generation of artists joining the theatre community across the country. Not to mention, the learning experience that hands on work gave them to master essential skills from calling cues to aiding quick changes.

Truly though, the meaning of our summer as interns at NCT was growth. Whether it was a non-theatre intern putting themselves out there during theatre games or being changed as a person by the kids, we’re all moving on bettered from this summer.

The most meaningful part of the experience has been “investigating and exploring the ways that storytelling impacts people,” says Megan. “…getting to watch and be hands on with kids who are learning what it is to tell stories and how to do it well, who are learning what theatre can do and teach, has been really affirming for me as someone who wants to tell stories for as long as possible.” 

I’m confident that the story of this summer, the stories each intern has about each week, class, and sharing, will continue to be told and continue to bring others in the family we’re grateful to have been so wholly welcomed into this summer.

Posted on September 3, 2019 .

Songs for a New World by NCT's Emerging Artists

By Denee Stewart Freeman

The musicals of Nashville Children’s Theatre Summer Drama School continue with Emerging Artists production, Songs for a New World (July 26 and July 27 at 7 pm and July 28 at 2 pm).

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Following last year’s The Music Man, twelve amazing fourteen to eighteen year-olds have been hard at work the past four weeks to bring this unique musical to life!

On working with the cast, director Alicia Fuss says, “The thing that’s cool about this intimate cast size is that you really get to know everyone and their individual learning journey and how you can support it. There’s an extra layer of tightly knit connection from the smaller ensemble.”

Another aspect of the joy in leading this summer's talented cast is how “they are exceptionally kind to each other,” says Fuss. “While they are talented and working really hard, they are also looking out for each other, and are incredibly supportive of each other.”

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That culture of support is led by the creative team: Fuss as director, Shawn Knight as music director, and Mallory Mundy as choreographer. In addition to helping each student stretch their skills and learn through rehearsals and performances, this team has a history of creating successful, impressive musical.

Selected for the unique learning challenges it provides students, Songs of a New World is not a typical musical with characters and a specific story line. in one of the shows earliest reviews, the writer interprets the show: “Songs for a New World is that very rare beast: an abstract musical. There is no specific location other than the natural ambiguity of the human heart and mind.” (Mike Isaacson of the St. Louis Riverfront Times)

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, creator of other well-known musicals including The Last Five Years, 13, and Bridges of Madison County, Songs of a New World had its off Broadway run in 1995 and was revived in NY City Center’s 2018 Encores! Off-Center concert.

So what roots this “rare beast?” Brown himself describes the show as “about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice… or take a stand… or turn around and go back.”

Filled with individual characters who are facing crucial, life-changing moments, the show still retains an ensemble base which is strengthened by Fuss and Knight’s decision to adapt some solos to group numbers. Balanced between solos, duets, and full cast performances, the show tells stories of individuals, but also expresses common struggles of human beings.

Brown’s quote has been essential in guiding the students through the biggest challenge the show presents to actors. “It’s all songs,” says Fuss, “so it requires students to put all of their acting skills into singing and movement instead of having spoken scenes or monologues they can use.” The absence of a linear narrative gives students the opportunity to strengthen their ability to find the thematic links that connect the characters and to enhance how the students convey those themes to the audience.

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Fuss explains, “We did table work with the show to look at clues - especially in the opening number – given to us about what the show is about. Using Jason Robert Brown’s quote in rehearsal we went through each song saying ‘What are the moments like that in this story for this character? Who are these people? What is their ‘hitting the wall’ moment, and what do they do with that moment during the song?’" After a month of rehearsals mirroring the professional process and learning vital skills such as script analysis, these actors and their characters are more than ready for opening night.

You only have one weekend to see this special show that will leave audiences breathless! Performances are July 26th and 27th at 7 pm and July 28 at 2 pm at Nashville Children’s Theatre, 25 Middleton Street.

Call NCT’s box office at 615-252-4675 or visit nashvillect.org to purchase tickets.

Posted on July 27, 2019 .

Remounting the show Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

By Lilly Moore

One of my favorite musicals of all time is Mamma Mia. What can I say, there’s just something about the bouncy 70’s euro pop stylings of Abba, performed on the backdrop of a beautiful Greek island that really just gets me. I’ve never actually seen it live (to my great displeasure), but I’ve seen the movie and every version I can find across the internet. What’s always fascinated me about the show is how it takes the pop sound of a generation and transforms it into what sounds like a classic musical. The group identity of Abba isn’t really present in the show, yet their music ties the plot together perfectly. Somehow, the reinvigoration of an already well-loved work of art creates a new piece, which is then make anew again with every production produced.

Eric D. Pasto-Crosby & Ryan Michael Friedman

Eric D. Pasto-Crosby & Ryan Michael Friedman

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, written and directed by Ernie Nolan, is one of Nashville Children’s Theatre’s ongoing productions for the very young. It features Eric D. Pasto-Crosby and Ryan Michael Friedman as the play’s two characters, Glimmer and Sparkle. The two actors are familiar with their jobs, having performed their roles last fall. When asked about the ease or difficulty of remounting productions which they’ve already performed in, Ryan and Eric, though in similar positions, have very different perspectives. “It was a super easy and fast process getting back into the show and character” says Ryan. “Returning to the script allows more freedom in the small moments and allows me to explore each moment more.” He also attributes his own success to his talented scene partner and hard-working teammates, in establishing fluidity and ease in the production.

Eric, though equally confidant feels more conflicted at the ease of entering a remount. “I always try and find what made the show and character interesting the first time around and then use that as a jumping off place to make this production just as good” he says. “I think as a remount you have to try and make this one better or very least slightly different. Mostly for those who saw it last time to get something new from the experience. The script hasn’t changed so that won’t be new, but little ways Ryan and I interact can be crisper, cleaner, and more playful.”

A lot of what makes a remount differentiate itself from other productions has to do with intention. As Eric pointed out, the script hasn’t changed. As words often lend the way to action, stage business can also be similar between productions. It is the intentions which actors and directors set within themselves that motivates individual shows.

Eric D. Pasto-Crosby as Glimmer

Eric D. Pasto-Crosby as Glimmer

With Twinkle, Twinkle, being a show made for a very young audience, the actors both found their intentions in communicating with their young audience members. Eric, who has a young son of his own, sets his intentions in honesty while portraying his character. “Kids can read through lies” says Eric. “They can tell when characters aren’t being ‘genuine.’  My personal goal is anytime I approach a production is ‘Will those I love see my growth as a performer in this show or that I learned something from past mistakes or moments that didn’t land?’ You must always be attempting to be better than your last performance.” Similarly, Eric found the most success in communicating with his young audience truthfully, as he would any other person only with simpler language. “Much of my professional experience in theatre has been performing for children. I found the most success in being truly honest with the character's intentions and never downplaying.”

Chad Parsons, the stage manager of the production, separates himself from his fellow teammates in that this is his first time interacting with Twinkle, Twinkle. His entry into the show was “a quick turnaround process,” he says, with his main challenge being inserting himself into an already produced production. “The most difficult thing for me was finding the rhythm of the show, this is something that is usually discovered in the full rehearsal process.  With this remount, we only rehearsed for four days. Ernie [the creator and director] was a joy to work with in this process, as he was open to the suggestions and slight changes that would help the show re-adjust to the space at Lipscomb.” Chad also commented on the interactive nature of the show as a means for keeping the material fresh. “They [Eric and Ryan] are both so involved with the children who are watching the show, they listen to what the children in the audience have to say and actually pay attention to them and respond to them; in doing this they are so automatically authentic.”

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, like Mamma Mia, is a reinvigoration of the familiar. As the musical does for adults, Twinkle, Twinkle gets children on their feet dancing, moving, and interacting with the theatrical world in front of them. Be it the first time or the twenty-fourth time, the show presents a refreshing tale of a little star and the starkeepers who look after it from which little ones can learn. 

NCT's Jr Artists Perform Disney's Frozen Jr.

By Denee Stewart Freeman

Prepare for the winter cold this June! Disney’s Frozen Jr. has come to Nashville Children’s Theatre’s Summer Drama School! (June 21 and 22, 2019)

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Following last year’s successful Junior Artists Production of Disney’s High School Musical Jr., actors ages 10-14 are working hard to tell the story of sisters Anna and Elsa. After three weeks of learning blocking as well as mastering melodies, harmonies, and dance moves, these young actors are ready to bring Arendelle alive at NCT’s Ensworth High School satellite campus.

The youth have been led, coached, and encouraged on all levels by an experienced and talented team. Musical director, Catherine Birdsong, choreographer, Rona Carter, and director, Shawn Knight have worked on four NCT Junior Artists Productions together, and they understand how to support the campers who are learning about performing while also supporting one another.

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Having never seen the movie or Broadway show, Carter was unfamiliar with Frozen, but while preparing, she discovered a decision in Frozen’s creation process that moved her. “At one point in the story’s development, it was planned for Elsa to be a villain, but then the producers received the song ‘Let it Go.’ The songwriters revealed a new perspective on Elsa and the producers realized their mistake - this movie was not about Elsa being evil. She was just unhappy and isolated, and so she turned out to be a hero after all.”

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And of course, that decision was well received by those who grew up singing along to the movie with Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel. “I really love their passion and enthusiasm,” Birdsong says about working with the Junior Artists. “For a lot of them, this is their first-ever show experience. It’s the first time they’ve put a show together, so it’s really cool seeing them understand some of the skills and nuances that we, as professional actors, have been doing for years.” 

Knight echoes these sentiments and hopes the young artists gain confidence from what may be their first theatre experience. “I hope they get a sense of just how much they’re capable of doing…. They may want to do things, but I don’t know that they always believe they can. And then they do one of these shows, and they can see what they’re able to accomplish.” 

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Based upon the 2013 Disney film inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen tale, the much-anticipated Frozen musical opened on Broadway in 2018. That production added new songs to the story, allowing audiences to get to know more about the characters within Frozen.

While running only an hour long, Frozen Jr. still retains all the whimsy and drama of the full-stage production, keeping songs like “Love is an Open Door” and “Let it Go” and maintaining that spirit with the new Broadway numbers. The opening song, “Let the Sun Shine On,” is full of color and cheer as maypoles and ribbons fill the stage, and “Hygge” features the pleasantly-content Oaken family known for their store’s “Big Summer Blow Out!”

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So what to expect from the show? Fabulous sets, wonderful costumes, and big dance numbers like “Fixer Upper,” and to some people’s surprise, “Let it Go!” “‘Let It Go’ is massive!” Carter says, and Knight explains, “[the song] is a solo in the movie, but has been turned into a large choral number for the play.” There are only two opportunities to enjoy all this talent and energy.

Performances are June 21st at 7pm and June 22nd at 2pm in the Ensworth High School Theater, at the Devon Farms Campus, 7401 TN- 100. Call the NCT box office at 615-252-4675 for more information and to reserve your tickets, or visit nashvillect.org

Posted on June 19, 2019 .

Experiencing Art with Others: A Step in the New Play Process

By Lilly Moore

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I could not tell you how many times I’ve seen and read Hamlet. Be it the National Theater’s production with Benedict Cumberbatch from 2015 or Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production, I must have seen or read it dozens of times. I linger on the text, seek deeper meaning in every pronunciation of “to be or not to be.” Recently, though, I’ve not felt as satisfied after Fortinbras’ last line. I’m disappointed that Hamlet still hasn’t killed his uncle when he told his ghost-dad he would, that he wasn’t a little bit clearer with Ophelia to have saved her from herself.

Familiarity is a comfort, yet it leaves one wanting. Most theater-goers know how Cinderella will end, what Jack will find at the top of the beanstalk, that Romeo and Juliet won’t live to see the end of their familial difficulties. While it’s nice to be sure that there will or won’t be a happy ending, the repetition of old stories lacks novelty, intrigue, mystery. Thus, is the reason for the development of new plays, to invigorate the mind in new unknown places and situations.

The starting point for any new work is inspiration, a spark that creates a storyline, characters, scenes. For Marisela Traviño Orta, writer of NCT’s world premier play, Return to Sender, her theatrical concepts begin with the characters who will be living in her world. “For me,” she said, “plays often begin with an image or a character that has a very specific conflict they are encountering. I often know how a play ends and begins—specifically the opening and closing images.” Marisela added that she works to get to know her characters deeply, what their traits, their thoughts, their emotions are. They are the driving force of her works, as opposed to a preconceived outline. “Writing the play is an act of discovery and I love finding out where the story will go as I write.”

Playwright Marisela Treviño Orta and director Crystal Manich at a read-thru before the workshop reading.

Playwright Marisela Treviño Orta and director Crystal Manich at a read-thru before the workshop reading.

Return to Sender is adapted from a novel of the same title by Julia Alvarez. The topic of the play, which Orta calls “challenging and necessary,” deals with Mexican immigrants in the United States. It closely follows two families from near opposite sides of North America intertwined on a farm in Vermont, relying on one another and having the opportunity to see each other for who they truly are- human beings. Though Orta uses the plot of Alvarez’s story in her own work, she sees adapting the story as an exercise rather than an ownership. “The story does not belong to you, but to the novel’s author,” she said. “My job it to honor that story—make sure the spirit of that story feels intact on stage.” Orta feels present in the imagery of the play, rather than the invention. She finds herself in how the story which she read is told.

Production is an important step in the creation of new plays. One may read a line as many times over as they please without finding anything striking in it, but there’s a large difference between reading “no” and hearing it shouted at you. Marisela, when asked about challenges she and other playwrights face, began with the importance of production. “Plays need productions in order for a playwright to finish them. Not just one—multiple productions. You learn so much when you’re in the production process and that learning doesn’t stop when the show opens. I currently have a play that has had 3 productions this season and after each play opened, I’ve had a different epiphany about the play—learned something that I took to the next production. I think maybe—maybe—by the fourth production I will feel like I’ve almost finished the script.”

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In conversing with Marisela, what intrigued me the most was her ideas on the purpose of a play. “I believe all art has purpose—it asks us to reflect,” she began. “I think plays absolutely do that, but theatre is also unique in that it asks us to experience the art with others. There are studies that have shown that when people sit together as an audience and watch a play in a darkened theatre, that their heartbeats and breath sync up. There aren’t many communal experiences that affect us like that and that I think that is the magic of theatre.” I completely agree with her. To me, there’s something truly unique about having action played out in front of you. There’s no screen to divide the actor from the audience. One could reach out and touch the characters in front of them as much as they can touch the people around them. What’s special about plays as an art from and as a literary genre is the connection which they force between the story and the on-lookers.

There is no step-by-step to developing and producing a play, as Orta pointed out. One may find inspiration in a novel and allow that to guide their work. One may have their play produced within a week of its creation, another may take years to see their work on stage. Some find themselves guided by their characters and some place their characters directly. Plays are, nevertheless, magical, as Marisela and I both agree on. “The actors are feet away from you. While TV and Film can use CGI, theatre has to create magic before your very eyes and I find that so much more moving and spectacular…theatre asks us to suspend our imaginations in a way that the other forms do not.”

Posted on June 12, 2019 .

Lasting a Lifetime: The Effects of Theatre for the Very Young

By Lilly Moore

Even as a young adult, my first memory of theatre is very vivid in my imagination. I was around three years old. I sat in my preschool classroom at a dressing table, pretending to be someone else; a princess preparing for her day. I applied the fake plastic lipstick, touched up my cheeks with a bare blush brush, and adjusted my tiara in the mirror.

Now, this is obviously not theatre in the traditional sense. I was not sat down in a dark auditorium to watch players perform scenes with language that I couldn’t yet fully understand. It was a theatrical experience nonetheless, though. Engaging with my surroundings under imaginary circumstances, willingly suspending my own disbelief about my character. This is what theatre for the very young, like NCT’s Snuggery seeks to do; to “blur the line between actor and audience,” as the London children’s theater Oily Cart attempts to do with each production.

Actors Kelsie Craig and Eric D. Pasto-Crosby in a workshop production of TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR.

Actors Kelsie Craig and Eric D. Pasto-Crosby in a workshop production of TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR.

Gerd Taube, in her essay “Aesthetic peculiarities of the ‘Theatre for Early Years,’” raises a poignant question about the 0-3-year-old audience of children’s theaters. “Are they ‘human beings’ or ‘human becoming’s’?” Stripped of basic comprehension skills which adults often take for granted, skills like language and sensory-motor capabilities, it can seem redundant to push art towards the less-developed mind. However, children of ages 2-4 months demonstrate of the earliest periods of synaptic growth and development, and by age 3, the brain is twice as active as that of a developed adult and 80% of synaptic connections are already made. A flux of environmental stimuli is thus necessary in defining an infant’s brain.

“Baby-theatre,” a term which refers to theatre created for ages 0-3, utilizes a structured format of creating to implement performance into a learning platform from which the very young can benefit. For years, theatre companies and practitioners have sought to define the means by which this tactic is achieved. Taube, in her essay, notes several aesthetic necessities in imagining proper baby theatre. Commonalities throughout research on the topic arise in these defined necessities.

Participation is key. In using subverted forms, such as call and response or physical actions which guide the movement of the plot, infants are intrinsically taught new skills of communication. As the developing infant may also lack verbal skills, they must learn from different kind of language, from a physical language. The very young interact with the world from a sensory-motor basis, using their senses to engage with their surroundings rather than on a linguistic basis. Creating an atmosphere from which the children can learn and allowing for them to physically interact with whatever story is being told in necessary in ensure that the players communicate with the same language as the audience.

Another aesthetic necessity of theatre for the very young is a simple plot. Now simple does not mean easy. It can often be very difficult for writers and practitioners to break down seemingly simple situations into layman’s terms. Similarly, every audience member sees a different story. When watching the Three Little Pigs, one child may question why the wolf is trying to blow the house down in the first place while another may be wondering where the little piggy’s parents are. While it’s impossible for playwrights to be able to predict and adequately serve every audience member’s perspective, a simple story line is necessary in conveying meaning to each child who interacts with the story.

Actor Ryan Michael Friedman teaching the audience what cues to expect for TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR.

Actor Ryan Michael Friedman teaching the audience what cues to expect for TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR.

Finally, communication is necessary in creating baby theatre. One of the main purposes of theatre for the very young is education, in establishing a discourse from which the young audience can learn, it is education through art. The players, the writers, the designers, the directors must be communicating with their audience. Theatre, to the very young, doesn’t just help build skills and entertain. It creates something with emotional longevity, something that has the ability to change a child forever.

Carlos Herans, a Spanish theatre artist, describes in his essay “Why Theatre for Early Years?” one of his earliest memories. An old countrywoman speaks to a prince and a panel on her house falls to the ground. The prince pushes it back up and gives the woman money to help fix her house. Herans states that he remembers nothing else from this scene, but the intense fascination he felt from the magic which the scene produced. It was not the action or the scene itself that created such a long-lasting memory, but what it made Herans feel. This what theatre for the very young strives to create for children, memories and feelings that will last them a lifetime.

Posted on May 25, 2019 .