Theatricks:The Play’s the Thing

This past July, Snail inched slowly across the stage of the Honey McGee Playhouse, in Sherman, Texas, delivering a package, while the full cast of A Year with Toad and Frog sang the finale. The package, a Christmas present from Toad (Derek George) to Frog (Mason Barlow), came too late. Frog was already in hibernation, and the lights went down. Poor Snail. There he stood, all alone. Everyone else was gone. This was Theatricks’ final production of 2008–2009.

Twenty-five years ago, Sherman Community Players (SCP) launched Theatricks to introduce children to live theater. Over the years, Director Webster Crocker, the Theatricks Board, and Advisory Board have turned the children’s arm of SCP into an educational and entertainment program of considerable note. Today, Theatricks offers a wide scope of opportunities for children to explore all aspects of theater, from acting to set design, lighting, costuming, stage management and directing.

Zeke Dolezalek, a sixteen-year-old human who became Snail, has acted with Theatricks for five years. Dolezalek’s ability to make the audience laugh when he is doing nothing more than changing the expressions on his face is testimony to the quality of acting encouraged by director Crocker, as well as to the well of local talent available for productions.

Webster Crocker was born with a script in his hand, probably because his father proposed to his mother on stage at Austin College during a performance of The Importance of Being Ernest. He started acting in sixth grade and never stopped.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Austin College and his masters from Oklahoma State, and in 1987, Ron Cassady, then as now the managing director of SCP, hired Webster Crocker to direct Theatricks operations on a part-time basis. Within a year, Crocker was full-time. Crocker gives a lot of credit for his success to Cassady. “Ron has been a wonderful influence to me artistically and a wonderful mentor as I learned the ropes of community theatre.”

The heart of Theatricks’ success lies in its five-day workshops: three per year—spring, summer and fall. They are divided into four classes: age four through kindergarten, first and second grades, third and fourth grades, and fifth through eighth grades.

During the first four days, Crocker’s objective is to help children find their inner characters and become more outgoing and creative, as well as develop acting skills, and he encourages young actors to impersonate characters far different from their usual selves. The Large and Terrible Frog in A Year with Toad and Frog was played by Martha Hayes—a young, willowy beauty. The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) at the end of May’s workshop was played by the smallest girl in the class.

In July, even before Toad’s cookies were swept up from the floor of the Honey McGee Playhouse, Crocker was teaching a new set of workshops. He used the castle set left from SCP’s production of Camelot at the Finley Theatre.

“When I can, I follow a theme so each workshop class can use the same set,” said Crocker. “In this case, I knew that the Camelot set would be available. I hate to waste a good set.” Plus, The BFG is a scheduled performance for the summer of 2010. Crocker was already laying groundwork.

The Honey McGee Playhouse is “in-the-round.” There is no traditional proscenium and no curtain, so colored lights indicate changes on stage. When the blue lights signal the end of a workshop show and the house lights come on, there is still more entertainment to come, especially with the pre-schoolers. These tiny performers autograph programs just like the big stars, except they do it on the floor or a bench or wherever it is easiest to draw their names. Some stick out tongues to concentrate better, paying no attention to the hair that falls across their faces. It’s all part of the education of being in live theater.

On the Road

In addition to the workshops, Webster Crocker gets his act and actors together and takes them on the road with another concept he developed. Project Theatre is a three-pronged effort to aid area schools with their theatre curriculum, with Theatricks-on-the-Go, In-the-Classroom, and Center Stage.

Theatricks-on-the-Go, a touring program, brings an interactive thirty-minute production each spring and fall to area schools. In the spring of 2009, they made Stone Soup in kettles all over North Texas and Oklahoma. Before the price of gasoline soared last summer, they often ventured into Dallas and Collin Counties. Now, Crocker tries to keep destinations within a half-hour’s drive.

The traveling players spent the summer performing in libraries and daycare centers across Grayson and Cook counties, and it’s not just the actors who are “on stage,” either. After watching a performance at the Howe library, Juanita Hazelton, the Bookshelf reporter for Texoma Enterprise, wrote, “Attending a performance by the Theatricks Traveling Players is not a spectator sport—the audience gets totally involved.”
In-the-Classroom uses various elements of theater arts, such as dressing up as famous figures or story characters, to help teach a lesson. The program brings life to the textbook and the excitement of imagination to learning.

Center Stage invites school groups to the Honey McGee Playhouse to view firsthand how all the elements fit together to create a production. Crocker said that in the last ten years, Project Theatre has introduced theatre arts to more than forty thousand individuals each and every year. OK, maybe some people get counted more than once, but forty thousand is forty thousand, and Crocker is sticking with those numbers. Anyway you spin them, it’s impressive.

Also Starring

Because so much of a show’s success plays out behind the activity on stage, in 1993, Crocker developed a teen group called the Supporting Cast. These teens meet monthly to learn hands-on the various elements of theatre arts. They form the bones of Theatricks, focusing on ten areas: acting, costuming, make-up, lighting, sound, directing, fundraising, house management, box office and stage management. Members earn points when they complete the requirements for each area. Their goal is to achieve the status of “Master Thespian” and have their names placed on the wall plaque at the Honey McGee Playhouse.

Before Supporting Cast started, about eighty percent of the jobs were filled by children, but often by children without much knowledge. By training teenagers, Crocker offers competent assistants to professional volunteers from the community, and the volunteers pass on their expertise. The adult to child ratio today is 50/50, providing a lot of one-on-one education.

Each season kicks off with a big performance. In 2009 it was Willie Wonka, the stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was chosen. Willie Wonka is an ambitious musical, with large machines, flying effects, and shrinking rooms. Because special effects for the timeless story of the candy man required so much room and equipment, it was staged at Kidd-Key Auditorium.

The Show

If workshops are the heart of the Theatricks program, Supporting Cast the bones, then community participation is its soul. Without the help of local professional musicians, artists, and technicians, Crocker could never produce the quality performances that Sherman has come to expect. The team assembled for Willie Wonka included Sylvia Rivers, Vocal Director, Fred Freeman, Orchestra Director, Amy Dean, Choreographer, Mickie Martin, Stage Manager and Gay Green, Costumer. Together with Crocker, they watched and listened to eighty hopefuls sing, dance, and act. Thirty-five got the nod, and the work began.

The first week of rehearsals for Willie Wonka belonged in the hands of the vocal director. In five evenings, Rivers taught all the songs necessary for the show. After that, she fine-tuned them by working with soloists and small groups when they were not needed on stage.

Rivers, an adjunct voice teacher at Austin College, uses her master’s degree in Vocal Pedagogy (the study of how a person’s vocal cords make music) to help students get the best sound from their voices. “My job is to make sure that they are making a healthy vocal production. Not yelling or doing anything that would hurt their vocal cords.” Her efforts pay off. Not only are parents and friends impressed, but outsiders, as well.

Sharon Anderson, a visitor from Prescott, Arizona, and a jazz performer, saw the performance of A Year in the Life of Toad and Frog. “That was so much fun,” she said. “Those kids were really great. I just loved the singing and the orchestra! I can’t believe they had a live orchestra.” Pam Gauthier conducted the orchestra for Toad and Frog.

Fred Freeman, a private strings teacher, former orchestra conductor for Dallas Schools, and  member of the Sherman Symphony, led the orchestra for Willy Wonka. Freeman conducts one Theatricks show each year and often plays in the orchestra for other performances. He held orchestra rehearsals separately from cast rehearsals. For three weeks, high school musicians practiced the necessary music, and then adult professionals joined in. Not until dress rehearsals did the orchestra perform with the stage players.

Freeman still had to attend the stage rehearsals. He sat next to the piano and directed the rehearsal pianist, Susan Pedigo, and cued the actors. “I have to learn and teach the pacing of the show. I have to plan how the dialogue fits in with the music introducing it, so that when the orchestra comes, we can put this together in one week [“tech week”] and have the timing, diction and rhythm right.”

Freeman was not the only person concerned about timing. Dean, the choreographer since 2002, “to [her] immense pleasure and delight,” got the second week of rehearsals to teach the dance steps and stage positions, and adapt for “things that don’t work.” Sometimes a really great actor or singer is not up to the level of dancing that a script requires. That’s when Dean rearranges. “You can still make someone look good, even if they have to do less complicated movements, or if they’re little, they’re just so cute it doesn’t matter.”

Her ability to choreograph comes from her studies in Physical Education. Her doctor’s thesis researched how children acquire skill movement. In a magnet school in Tennessee, Dean put this knowledge into practice when she partnered with a choir director and together they produced four musicals a year.

In Sherman, Dean teaches P. E. at Dillingham and loves working with Theatricks. “People should take advantage of what we have. For a city this size to have live theater is amazing. If someone is looking for something to do, both Theatricks and Sherman Community Players are great places to help out—whether it is in music, dance, set making or costumes. There’s always something that needs to be done. And it’s fun.”
Behind this door lies magic,” Gay Green, the head costumer for Willy Wonka, said, as she approached a plain white door in a square, beige building. That this bland building held anything but beige, boring offices seemed highly unlikely, yet as all fantasy lovers know, unremarkable places often hide magic.

Backstage

The door opened to 8,400 square feet of shelves and racks full of clothing, men’s shirts and pants, old-fashioned vests, women’s cocktail dresses, frilly prom dresses, Western wear, clothes from the 50s and 60s, the 20s and 30s, and the frontier. There were shoes, hats, military uniforms, wigs, scarves, gloves, a hanger alley and, tucked in among it all, a sewing center. “This is Footlights, where we have collected all the costumes made or donated since Sherman Community Players was started,” said Green. “Put a party of young girls in Footlights, and they can spend hours just trying on outfits.”

Both Green and Tammy Daubenspeck, costumer for A Year in the Life of Frog and Toad, know how to create a costume on a shoestring. If Footlights doesn’t have what they need, they cut down, remake, or scrounge at thrift stores for suitable items. “I found the neatest costume for Mrs. T.V. at Goodwill,” said Green. “It’s a gold lamé dress. I’ve been to every Goodwill store in two counties.”

For the eighteen Oompa Loompas, Green had to buy new material and make their overalls so they would all look alike. Green’s daughter, Allison Thornhill, and Daubenspeck helped out as did two student assistants, one of whom was Zeke Dolezalek (remember Snail?), who made six pairs.

In her other life, Green is the Employee Benefits Coordinator for Sherman ISD. Costume designing is her magic life, especially for a show like Willy Wonka, where costumes match to personality. Green also has praise for the Martin family, L.B.R. and Mickie and their children Leah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Joe. The Martins took on the daunting task of reorganizing Footlights. They fixed the air conditioning in the costume warehouse and cleaned, sorted and hung the clothing into convenient categories. Without them, Footlights would be a huge mess.

Many businesses and foundations sponsor performances—Sherman Cardiovascular Care Associates, Caskey Orthodontics, TexomaCare Pediatrics & TexomaCare Family Practice, Sherman Council for the Arts and Humanities, and AmeriState Bank, to mention a few—while many others contribute as underwriters

All the work, all the planning, all the rehearsal came together on September 5, when Willie Wonka opened to an enthusiastic house. Augustus Gloop (Joshua Bayless) disappeared in a river of chocolate, Violet Beauregard (Ellie Gundersheimer) became a blueberry, Mike Teavee (Caleb Crocker) shrank to one foot tall, and Charlie Buckett (Hannah Sanza) and Grandpa Joe (Paul Jordan) drank bubbly water and flew above the stage. The Oompa Loompas took their bows, and the curtains closed

Taking part in Theatricks brings a great deal of pleasure to many people—whether it is as passive as enjoying performances or as active as participating in a production. But for some children, it becomes something more. It helps them find a career.

Antonette Faulkner, who sang or played violin for past performances and ran the spotlights for A Year in the Life of Toad and Frog, headed to college this August to study theatre. She wants to design sets and costumes. Joey Oliver, who is still in elementary school, says he will always act. “If Theatricks went down, I’d look for another place.” As for Zeke Dolezalek, he plans to head for New York or Chicago as soon as he is out of high school, to study acting. He wants to be more than a snail.