Back in June I was asked to speak at an event celebrating the 20 year partnership between the Canadian Children’s Theatre Company (CCTC) and the Town of Aurora. As you will read, I have greatly benefited from my involvement with CCTC and felt very blessed that I was asked to share my thoughts on what impact its had on my life and why I love and value children’s theatre programs. In case there are any parents out there wondering if they should put their kids into theatre classes, here are my thoughts (as speechified).
My name is Katie Leamen, and I started my theatre career in grade 4 with the Canadian Children’s Theatre Company. After graduating with a degree in Acting, I came back to CCTC as a staff member for 3 years. I am now a professional actor, playwright, producer and founder of No Porpoise Productions, and I work with indie theatre artists and theatre companies to increase their capacity to create sustainable careers in the arts.
But before we get to that…
Congratulations are in order
- Jennifer – Seriously, well done! All hustle and heart.
- Town of Aurora – you have continued to invest in a great company and brought quality arts programming to thousands of youth. Especially when school curriculums keep relegating arts education to the back-burner, it is crucial that kids have access to it somewhere, so good on you for recognizing that, and making it a priority for 20 years.
One of my university professors – in a BFA Acting program no less – told us that a study had been done suggesting a person’s body experiences the same chemical reaction before going on stage as it does when being chased by a bear. There was another poll where people ranked being dead as more preferable than being on stage (this was a poll of adults).
- So to you students – past and present – I am so proud of you that you conquered the joy and terror of being on stage. You outran a bear! You are victorious! And though that may seem like a silly thing for me to say, that victory stays with you a very long time and can give you courage years down the road when you are asked to recite Shakespeare in grade 10 English, or you have to make a presentation to your boss, or a speech at a wedding. Theatre and performing is like chicken pox: best to expose people when they’re young because it is so much worse to start later.
- To parents of students – past and present. Good on you for encouraging your child to participate in a CCTC program. Way to give them a taste of victory.
Jennifer asked me to say a few words about the impact theatre programming such as CCTC has had on my life.
In grade 4, I was in my very first show thanks to Canadian Children’s Theatre Company and I played Sparkle the Elf in Little Surfin’ Santa. My next show that same year was Charlotte’s Web, and I played the reporter, 2nd spider’s voice, and some other small part I can’t recall. I was hooked. By the end of that first year, I decided my life’s ambition was to be an actor, director, producer or Olympian. Very modest goals, I’d say.
I met Jennifer the next year when I was suddenly staring as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Jen was choreographer. After the show, the cast would sit on the each of the stage to sign autographs for our adoring fans and family members, and it was thanks to this experience that I developed the signature that I still use to this day. Who knew that the effects of CCTC would be visible in all my legal documents?
Doing theatre classes through the rec department taught me many valuable skills, technical knowledge and gave me the confidence to feel at home in a performing arts high school, and later, university. People I met in the years I was in CCTC have continuously popped up in my later life at high school, auditions for university programs, auditions for gigs, fringe festivals, or teaching CCTC summer camp with me.
When I started teaching for Jen (back in 2008?), my specialty was the teen groups, because they got my sense of humour and mostly because Jen let me play to my strengths which is creating fun, silly theatre and challenging my young actors the same way I want to be challenged as an artist. The first year she let me adapt the film version of Clue – including all three endings. Poor kids. The second year, I wrote Alice in Wonderland based on weekly improvs of various scenes I would run with the teens. They LOVED that show. And their parents LOVED the show.
Because of the reactions to that Alice in Wonderland script, I decided a couple years later to produce it professionally and start my theatre collective, No Porpoise Productions. We were able to pay our actors in part because we saved a lot of money when Jen let us borrow half the costumes from her. One of my teens from that original cast contacted me the same year to ask if he could use the script for his high school’s submission to the Ontario Sears Drama Festival, which was the first time I ever got to attend a show as a VIP playwright with a sign on my seat and everything. That same old Alice later led to my being commissioned by Solar Stage to adapt Treasure Island and the ensemble is now nominated for a Dora award for Outstanding Performance – Theatre for Young Audience category! An extended remount returning this fall. If I had never done Alice, I would never have written A Christmas Carol Comedy which is my favourite and which will be touring this December. Not to mention that one of my biggest facebook supporters is Clare Howells, who’s son Aiden was in several of my shows. So, the fact that I can now call myself – professionally – an actor, producer, and playwright, is very much thanks to Jen and the Canadian Children’s Theatre Company.
Not all of us go on to pursue theatre as a full time career, but participating in theatre when you are young gives you so much no matter where you go in life, which is why I think Jen’s programs with the Town of Aurora have been so successful at retaining participants who grow up through all the classes.
Aside from hard skills, like memorization tricks – those come in handy at school! – or projection, how to find your light, etc. here are my 7 favourite things about theatre – specifically, children’s theatre.
- It is the only team sport where everyone wins. Every kid crosses the finish line at the same time, and everyone’s efforts are applauded.
- You belong to a group. For some kids, that is enough in itself. In the rec department programs especially, because there is a bigger age range than a typical classroom, the older, more experienced kids are generally really great about helping mentor the younger ones and boosting their confidence.
- You can test drive being someone else. Once again, especially when it’s through the rec department and not your regular school group. For kids who feel stuck in how they are seen by others, it’s a nice little escape to try being someone for a bit, maybe who is the opposite of you. Surprisingly, a lot of very shy people become actors for this reason.
- Thinking from your character’s point of view helps teach empathy.
- The costumes – Kids definitely come back to CCTC because they get such awesome things to wear and that is definitely thanks to Jen’s mad sewing skills and willingness to live without sleep.
- It’s a wonderful introduction to famous stories that you should definitely read – Robert Munsch, Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Doolittle, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Narnia series, Mary Poppins, Robin Hood, James and the Giant Peach, Stuart Little, Alice in Wonderland… the list goes on.
But perhaps my favourite thing – and the lesson that I tried hardest to instill when I was teaching – is that:
7. the theatre is a safe place to take risks and look silly.
School can be very hard on kids who are so afraid to look uncool, or different, or embarrassing and that can be confidence-crushing. Theatre produces many types of magic, but my favourite is when kids realize that being able to laugh at yourself is a good thing. And that the greater risks you take – the more willing you are to be honest even if it is embarrassing or ridiculous – the audiences always rewards you the most. Even more than the cool kids.
Theatre is escape, adventure, and imagination in a very safe place. And while books can offer similar things, its not such a group event and nobody applauds you for reading a book on your couch. Believe me, I have waited for it!
But theatre can only work its magic when there are people who are supporting it and letting it live, so a toast, or hardy congratulations, to Jennifer Martin and the Town of Aurora on 20 years of making magic in your community. Here’s to 20 more years of education, inspiration, passion, and silliness.