Little stars learn life skills on stage

By Yepoka Yeebo

The director shouts, “Set change!” and with the speed and precision of a well-trained army, the kids of the New Star Children’s Theatre rush to their battle stations. Four very small, nimble children and a teenager with a shock of red hair move the set.

Behind them two women paint, deep in concentration.

Under their brushes, large white screens slowly become the Yellow Brick Road, complete with a looming castle for their production of The Wizard of Oz.

Once only for artsy kids who wanted their names in lights, theatre skills are now being recognized as character-building. Lessons in singing, dancing and acting, like Little League baseball or hockey, become lessons in time-management and teamwork, while improving social skills.

Brigitte Renaud, one of the women painting the sets, sent her daughter Aryelle Cyr, then eight, to the New Star sessions at the Bronson Centre to boost her confidence.

She found that somewhere between the first shy day, when she was mobbed by the other kids, and her first performance, her daughter was transformed.

“(When she started) she was reading at a kindergarten level and by the end, she had improved by two reading grades,” she says.

“Maybe it was because she felt good about herself, or maybe it was reading the scripts, but she changed.”

Valerie Sedlesky is already a veteran at age nine, with two performances under her belt.

She says she has learned a lot about how to project her voice and paint scenes, while having fun.

“It taught me that for something to be nice, you need everybody to work together,” Sedlesky says.

For Carole Walker, producer at the children’s theatre, this is one of the keys to theatre as education.

“They learn responsibility and how to work in a team. Before rehearsals, they’re split into groups. Some help with the costumes, some help set up the sound, some help with the sets and learn the proper way to pack the equipment.”

Walker runs New Star with her daughter and director Melanie Walker, who has been part of the group since she was four.

It’s a full-time, unpaid job.

The younger Walker says she is driven by seeing the children develop and by teaching them to teach others. Teenage members who have performed as many as 10 shows become associate directors.

During the intense rehearsal schedule in preparation for the performance, the 32 excited children get ready to reap the fruit of six months of hard work.

This, says Carole Walker, means the same to all the kids regardless of why they started coming.

“The confidence comes from accomplishing something,” she says.

“They feel good because they learned so much: songs, dances, how to develop a script – it’s not just learning lines, they delve into the characters they play.”

While the kids are running through a dance number, they pause to debate the merits of dancing with broomsticks.

“They’re really loud on stage,” one comments, while another adds they’re kind of expensive.

Melanie Walker calls a vote on whether to drop the sticks from the scene. The kids almost unanimously agree.

With this, she says the key is to treat the six-year-olds and the 16-year-olds the same way.

“People always underestimate kids, but they always perform better with responsibility. We expect a certain level of behavior, and they step up to it.”

The elder Walker says she feels it’s important to push the children to try different things, whether it’s Valerie Sedlesky’s vocal projection or getting a shy child like Aryelle Cyr up front.

“They get into costume, the lights go on and they’re just transformed,” she adds.

“Even if they didn’t sound too good before, all of a sudden, they’re putting it out there. And while they’re performing, they’re smiling.”

The New Star Children’s Theatre will be performing The Wizard of Oz at the Bronson Centre on Oct. 14 at 7 p.m., and on Oct. 15 and 16 at 1:30 p.m.Auditions for the next play,Oliver, will be on Oct. 29. Call 523-3264 for details.