Columbians have followed actress Kristin Davis’s career with a great deal of pride over the years. As she has gracefully appeared on large and small stages and screens, residents have been quick to point to her youthful face and whisper, “You know, she’s from Columbia. She grew up here.”
Kristin began her acting career in Columbia in local children’s theater, where she amassed the wealth of skills that have carried her through her personal and professional successes. “Through the theater I learned how to work with a group of people towards a common goal,” says Kristin, who recently appeared on Broadway alongside James Earl Jones, John Stamos and Cybill Shepherd in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. “I learned to be responsible, to compromise, to be a team player and to take constructive criticism.” Such skills are being taught every day through Midlands’ theater programs for children, including Workshop Theatre, where Kristin began her training at age 10.
“The most important lessons a child gets from participation in theater include learning how to work with, accept and appreciate different types of people,” says Dedra Mount, director of the theater’s School of Performing Arts. “Kids also come to understand that the word ‘no’ is not the end of the world. As they go through the audition process, children learn that a professional critique is not the same as personal criticism.” Along with those skills comes that of time management, which is highlighted in Workshop’s Broadway Bound program. Students who are involved in community theater may have interdisciplinary interests in dance and music study. Broadway Bound enables them to continue concentrating on those interests while fostering a love for musical theater.
“In the world of dance, once you reach a certain level of study you are encouraged to join your studio’s company or team,” Dedra explains. “The commitment to traditional dance companies doesn’t really leave any time for plays or musicals. This was frustrating for dancers who had been bitten by the acting bug, I created Broadway Bound to encourage those who want to act and sing — as well as dance — while allowing them to enjoy the excitement of attending dance competitions with their companies.” As students continue this interdisciplinary study, they are only required to attend one competition per year as they hone the many skills needed to be successful in their curricular and extracurricular studies.
Theater participation comes in many forms, as evidenced by the Columbia Children’s Theatre. Whether a child is painfully shy and worried about new experiences or is bursting out to see, smell and taste everything possible, Columbia Children’s Theatre will tap into his or her imagination upon arrival. Located on the second floor of Richland Mall in Forest Acres, the windows of the theater are always whimsically decorated to excite both students and audience members for upcoming shows. Children can participate in any way that works for their personalities because the company has built three main facets into its programming.
For those who would rather take in a performance from the audience viewpoint, main stage productions feature professional adult actors who perform for children and their families. Such productions form the backbone of the theater’s mission with six shows each year. For children who are ready to jump into productions themselves, YouTheatre productions are cast entirely with students in first through twelfth grade. The program began in 2010 as a result of requests from children who wanted to try their hand at being on stage. “These shows are written specifically for youth,” says managing director Jim Litzinger. “They give young actors the opportunity to play roles they ordinarily might not get to play at this age. For example, in our recent production of Annie Jr., students played not only the orphans but also all of the adult roles, like Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Daddy Warbucks.”
The theater also provides educational programs to give children solid foundations in acting for both stage and film. “In addition to year-round classes taught in-house, we also work with schools across the Midlands to help make up for decreased arts funding. We provide two types of in-school residencies — one which focuses on the basics of acting and tapping into imagination and creativity, the other geared toward producing plays with students which complement their curricula and help bring topics that they are studying to life,” says Jim.
Students in Town Theatre’s Youth Theatre are taught the kind of discipline that can be noticed in a crowd, says executive director Sandra Willis. “They are able to work within the structure of knowing when they must be quiet, when they must pay attention,” she says. “They are getting up on stage in front of hundreds of people at one time, and what we tell them is to be well assured that they might be on a stage with 50 other people, but there are people in that audience who are looking just at them.” Such lessons instill a certain sense of self-respect that participants in the program gain as they take classes within the program and then decide whether they want to participate onstage in the production that follows.
(L to R) Workshop Theatre’s Broadway Bound members Ali Bradley, Anthony Harvey and Hannah Mount perform “Easy Street” during the Encore Dance Competition for the Stars.
At first glance, it might seem that the benefits of arts education are only accessible to those who live in more densely populated areas. However, Irmo Chapin Recreation Center’s Children’s Theatre provides programming for students who may not be able to travel to Columbia to experience art. Jennifer Riddle, who runs the youth program, says, “We bring a top-notch experience to a more rural community, and participants can have the same experience as kids who live in downtown Columbia or Charleston or Greenville.”
ICRC’s program was once adult oriented, with children only playing smaller roles as extras. “Then the commission took it over, and we made it all about kids,” says Jennifer. “The kids are the stars. They build the sets and are involved from the beginning, and everyone who is involved gets a part.”
The resulting sense of ownership children gain from participating in the ICRC Children’s Theatre program stays with them, often extending past their school days. This past summer, a former student who is now a theater major at Anderson College returned to act as the program’s stage manager. It wasn’t just a summer job for her; she returned home to a community.
Town Theatre also instills a sense of community through its fall productions, when local nonprofits, such as choruses or school groups, are invited onstage to showcase their talents during a performance. In turn, 50 percent of the proceeds from that day’s performance are donated to the charity, giving students a prime example of the importance of community giving.
Civic and educational engagement tend to be added perks to the sense of belonging instilled by an arts community. According a report published by Stanford University and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, students who participate in arts-related activities are more likely to read for pleasure, perform community service or be recognized for community service. Such results can easily be seen around the Midlands. “We receive letters from parents and teachers saying that their children or students speak up more in school, are more social with classmates and focus more on their studies after being involved in a play,” says Jim. “Participation encourages imaginative thinking, which is so important in today’s creative economy. But young actors take away so much more. Theater fosters teamwork and discipline, and it provides an outlet for self expression.”
Arts and theater participation have even greater effects on children in low-income, low-opportunity situations. According to a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, at-risk youth who participated in arts programs showed higher grade point averages, were more likely to complete a high school calculus course, and were more likely to graduate than their peers who did not participate in such programs.
Theater participation enhances and cements life skills that are significant to a successful adulthood. While only a small number of theater students make their careers under the lights of the stage, the skills learned are beneficial in just about any profession, and former students look back on their theater days often and fondly. Kristin Davis says, “I believe that learning these skills at an early age through working in the theater uniquely prepared me for my career and life in general. As I work with wonderful actors like James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, I am reminded of my early days at Workshop Theatre. I am so thankful that as a young person I found a place that taught me to value my creative side. It has served me well in life.”