Wayside’s stage opens opportunities to kids

Posted: February 9, 2013

The Winchester Star

Colton Foltz (from left), Jayden Berman and Jordyn Hansbrough rehearse with Wayside Theatre education director Molly MacLagan. Hundreds of children have taken acting classes and performed at the Middletown theater. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
Thomasin Savaiano, founder of Wayside Theatre’s Young Performers Workshop, appears in “Wait until Dark” with one of her proteges, Natalie Youngblood.
Natalie Youngblood performs in Wayside’s production of “Glory Bea! A Shenandoah Christmas Story.”
Brandon Shockey
Jordyn Hansbrough
Logan Hartigan
Colton Foltz
Jayden Berman
Brady Spaid

Middletown

Wayside Theatre has created a legacy through children.

It has touched the lives of hundreds of children and teenagers in the last 13 years, said Thomasin Savaiano, founder of the theater’s Young Performers Workshop.

Since 2000, 1,476 students have enrolled in the program. During that time, 159 children up to age 18 have appeared in main stage shows.

Regardless of Wayside’s future, it lives on in every child who has participated in a workshop or class, or performed in a play, Savaiano said.

If the theater can keep its doors open despite the financial difficulties threatening to close them, it will live on in the future children who come through its doors for workshops, classes and performances, she said.

“Wayside provides a way to positively support kids by letting them know they can do more than they ever thought possible,” Savaiano said. “Whether they do this for a living or not, they will carry that with them for the rest of their lives.”

Starting something special

Savaiano came to Wayside Theatre in summer 1999 from Chicago to work as an Equity actor.

At the end of that year, she became engaged to Wayside’s artistic director Warner Crocker and stayed.

During the run of the Christmas play, he came to Savaiano with an idea for a children’s program she could lead in the off-season.

At the time, the only significant way for children to become involved at Wayside was to audition for and act in its Christmas shows, she said. Crocker wanted to change that.

“He asked me, ‘How do you feel about starting a children’s program, since the theater is dark from January to May and nobody is really using the space?’” she said. “I said ‘Sure!’”

At that time, the theater did not offer productions year-round as it does now.

In January, she came back from a break after the Christmas show and created a program for the first Young Performers Workshop. She sent a mailing to the families of the children who had auditioned for the Christmas production.

The first class started in February, and a new era began in which children became an essential part of life at Wayside, she said.

The first two classes, the Introduction to Acting courses, brought in 13 children. With them, she started a tradition that continues today — the goal of working toward a performance.

The YPW 1 class (ages 7 to 12) performed a one-act play, and YPW 2 (ages 12 to 18) did the same, along with monologues.

Family affair

When children want to be involved with the theater, it is not just their activity, it is also a family commitment, said Vic Shockey of Old Fields, W.Va.

His son Brandon, 18, has participated in Wayside programs since he was 12.

Brandon tried sports when he was younger, but never found anything he was truly passionate about, Shockey said. Since the family lives in a small farming community, few opportunities for artistic pursuits were available nearby.

After Brandon expressed his desire to be an actor and became involved in his first YPW and started working in the casts of main stage shows, Shockey and his wife Missy did what they needed to make his goals happen.

That included leaving work to drive him to matinee shows of “A Christmas Carol” when he was cast as Peter Cratchit.

Brandon’s younger sister Shannon, 13, also fell in love with theater — the backstage side — and was happy to spend a great deal of time at Wayside, her father said.

Although children do not pay to participate in a main stage show (as they do for the classes) — they receive a small stipend for a production — driving an hour each way daily can add up financially, Shockey said.

“We just wrote it into our budget, instead of going to movies or sometimes even vacations,” he said. “If Brandon was in a summer show, we didn’t have a vacation. If Shannon was involved in something, we just dedicated ourselves to their love of the arts.”

Sacrifice isn’t the proper word for it, Shockey said, since giving up those things and spending their time at Wayside gave his children not only happiness but also skills for their future.

“Thomasin refers to Brandon as a multi-tooled actor who can act, sing and dance. When Brandon went down there, he was just a kid with dreams,” Shockey said. “They were the ones who found that inside of him. It is something Missy and I could not have given him.”

Wayside has even been essential in the process of taking the next step toward his future, Brandon said. Most college theater departments require auditions as part of their admissions.

“The Wayside staff actually set up mock auditions for me to practice for all of the faculty and staff and actors,” he said. “They all gave me feedback. It was really an amazing experience.”

For someone such as Brandon, who wants to make acting his career, Savaiano hopes Wayside has provided a head start.

But even children who love Wayside but want to eventually become accountants, engineers or veterinarians, the theater is just as important, she said. “We hope we are making not just better actors, but better people.”

Fully invested

The children and teenagers who become involved at Wayside aren’t passive about their love of the theater, Crocker said.

It is widely known that the 51-year-old theater must raise $90,000 to keep its doors open. As of this week, about one-third of the way toward the 90-day deadline, it has raised more than $40,000, he said.

And the children are doing their part. The Suzuki violin class at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester held a “Play-in” Jan. 19 and raised $209.

The Destination Imagination team at Frederick County Middle School has raised more than $800 selling white plastic “Save Wayside” bracelets.

“These are kids who have been a part of these programs and they want to see them continue, so they are working very hard,” Crocker said. “That puts enormous pressure on us to want to keep these programs going, and it is a pressure we welcome.”

It is unfortunate that during the nation’s recent economic troubles, so many local theaters have been forced to shut down, said Virginia White, 25, of Orlando, Fla., who studied in more than a dozen YPW classes and appeared in four main stage shows at Wayside. Now, she works as a server at Disney’s Beach Club Resort and has a recording studio in her condominium so she can continue to work on her singing.

Since public schools often struggle to provide basic education, the arts are often seen as a luxury they cannot afford, she said.

“At Wayside, it was really a place where people were educated and experienced in theater and art, and it is a place where children can go to explore that,” White said.

Laying a foundation

Working on acting skills is a given in the activities at Wayside, since most programs end in a performance, said Brady Spaid, 13, the son of Kristi and Steven Spaid of Winchester.

Skills such as memorization, articulation and presentation are always a focus. But children improve in other areas as well.

Before he started YPW classes when he was 6, Brady said, he wasn’t shy, but was “the kid who sat in back.”

“YPW taught me to talk in front of people,” he said. “It is a big part of where I got my confidence.”

In any performing art — theater, music, dance — certain values are crucial for those who want to participate, Crocker said. One of those is developing a sense of confidence and self-esteem — traits often lacking in children who have not yet found their niche in the world.

“If you are going to get onstage and perform in front of a group of people, you have to be confident enough in yourself to share yourself,” he said. “That is something our classes offer.”

Sometimes it is not just believing in yourself, but in the possibility of your dreams, that the theater offers, said Lauren Byrd, 23, a former Wayside student now pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles.

She took a few YPW classes as a teenager, but the opportunity during her high school years to be a Wayside intern exposed her to every aspect of a theater’s operations.

“A lot of times growing up, kids say, ‘I want to be an actor.’ That is nice, but it didn’t seem like it was taken seriously all the time,” Byrd said. “Something I really found at Wayside, and especially with Thomasin, was that they were really validating those dreams and encouraging me to pursue that.”

Professionalism

Part of the reason Wayside can instill that kind of seriousness about acting is by letting children know from the start that they are expected to act professionally, Savaiano said.

They must stand still, look people in the eye and pay attention to their activities and surroundings, she said.

Wayside is a professional theater and, especially with main stage productions, a director only has two to three weeks — four for the Christmas shows — to pull productions together, Crocker said.

While the division is clear between the education and main stage divisions of Wayside, the “line gets blurry” at times when children are cast in main stage productions, he said.

The students are not required to be YPW participants before they are cast in a show — “we have always cast children who have never participated in our classes before,” Crocker said. But it’s a simple fact that students who have taken the classes know what is expected of them and have had more training to build up their skills and confidence, he said.

Whether children are in a class, the Christmas show or any other show on the main stage, they are told they have the same responsibilities and expectations to live up to as the professional actors, Crocker said. “They really respond to that.”

Megan McShea, 25, of Columbus, Ohio, remembers being grateful for those expectations.

Whether she was a student in a YPW class or acting as Jane Fezziwig in “A Christmas Carol” in her junior year of high school, McShea knew she was “expected to produce professional-level work.”

“Being treated that way as a kid was so refreshing — to know I wasn’t being viewed as less-than in any way or that I wasn’t expected to do as much,” she said.

A year after she graduated from Bucknell University in 2009, McShea came back to Wayside as the education assistant and then became the education director. She held students to the same expectations that had been asked of her, and they responded well.

Working in theater gives students a good work ethic, because they quickly realize that if they are not getting a good result, they are not putting in enough work, McShea said.

She is applying to graduate schools to become a speech therapist and help students “find their voice” in the way she found hers at Wayside.

Expanding the program

In the beginning, Savaiano was the only teacher in Young Performers Workshops, but the number of instructors has grown with the program — three people are leading classes now, she said.

The workshop topics include Shakespeare, improvisation and music-theater dance.

The cost ranges from $125 to $250, depending on the length of the course, and up to $350 in the summer.

The program also includes the YPW Playhouse, aimed at ages 4 to 6, and YPW Plus, where singers take master classes with Steve Przybylski, the theater’s resident music director.

They all end in a show that instructors either choose or write after the class has started, Savaiano said. “We tailor the show to the kids we have.”

Wayside has continued to expand its program to meet the needs of the children, she said.

In fall 2007, Emerging Artists was started to give youths 13 to 18 an immersing experience in a professionally produced performance.

The program offers two productions each year — Shakespeare in the spring and a new piece written by the teens in the fall, she said.

The theater’s Young Playwrights competition invites high school students to submit a play for judging.

One play is selected, and Savaiano spends a month working on it with the student before it is cast and a professional stage reading is conducted.

The deadline for this year’s entries is March 1.

Dedication

The goal many of the students constantly work toward is being cast in a main stage production at Wayside, Savaiano said.

All children’s roles are double- cast so they are not overloaded.

Most of those roles were in the Christmas shows, which are geared for and star many children, she said. But they are anything but child’s play.

The Christmas plays are probably more rigorous because they offer matinees for school children in addition to a regular show schedule.

In 2011 and 2012, Natalie Youngblood, 10, was cast as Rebecca Estep in “Glory Bea! A Shenandoah Christmas Story” and for weeks, her life revolved around the play.

During rehearsal weeks, one of her parents — Melissa and Jim Youngblood of Frederick County — would pick her up after school and take her to a rehearsal, from about 4 to 10 p.m. The weekend rehearsals were even longer.

When Jessica Shostek, the other girl playing the role, was onstage, Natalie was expected to watch. Between watching and performing, she did homework.

“I was always learning new things about how to act, but also learning about different people and how to interact with them,” Natalie said.

During the run of the show, she would go to classes at Indian Hollow Elementary School and was then picked up by her mother to make the drive to Wayside for matinee shows. After the show, Youngblood drove her back, and Natalie would eat lunch and do schoolwork in the car.

When Natalie was cast as one of two girls playing Gloria in the 2012 production of “Wait Until Dark,” she had the same busy schedule minus the matinee performances.

If acting had ever affected Natalie’s grades, the Youngbloods wouldn’t have allowed it, her mother said. Otherwise, she and her husband approach extracurricular activities for Natalie and her brother Jack with an open and flexible attitude.

“If it is something they have fun at and enjoy and it is an enrichment opportunity, then we support it,” said Youngblood, who usually stays to watch the rehearsals and see the show come together.

— Contact Laura McFarland atlmcfarland@winchesterstar.com