The Ogden City Arts Advisory Committee is a group of local artists and residents that focuses on all things art happening in the city. The group’s members work as liaisons between artists and Ogden City to ensure art remains a vital part of the city. Wes Whitby is programs coordinator for Treehouse Museum and a member of the committee.
“Ever since I was younger than you are.”
That’s what I always say when I’m asked, “How long have you been (acting, performing, playing),” by young visitors at the end of a theater performance at Treehouse Museum. I love to get that question because what they’re really asking is, “When can I do it? When can I start to do what you do?”
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I remember starting. As a performer, I started where everybody starts (if they are permitted) — with the benign ambush of anyone who would allow me to show off, tell my story, bang my bongos or whistle my tune. I started performing for grandma, of course, and for captive audiences of siblings and pets and plushies and half-willing neighbors. Who doesn’t remember the summer 1978 neighborhood performance — mostly improvised — of Star Wars the musical? It got a Tony that year (Tony Villalobos from down the street. He played a very short Chewbacca).
And why not? Experiences like that are fundamentally story-play. We are all natural performers and storytellers. Not everyone takes to it as a profession (thank goodness — the rest of us need an audience), but anyone who has either asked or answered the questions, “What did you do today?” or, “Where are you going tomorrow?” is in the business of story.
But as genuinely delightful as those ad hoc, back porch productions can be, there is something significant about participation in a structured theater experience. When a practiced veteran of the stage is there to guide the theatrical process for young actors, the experience is taken out of the realm of play to a new, developmental level. The benefit to the student is more than just the honing of the skill — the craft (insert posh and pretentious voice) of “The Theatre.”
With direction, participation in a structured drama class or production is really a guided exercise in the processes of suspending disbelief, practicing empathy and engaging in what amounts to a practical preparation for social interaction — all within the process of preparing and presenting a story to an audience.
Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, a hero of child development philosophy, called it “scaffolding” — essentially the process by which an adult (read, expert) provides guidance and structure while gradually removing support until the child demonstrates the skill on his or her own.
I revel in the fact that I now get to be a guiding adult who “scaffolds” the theater experience for young children. At Treehouse this experience takes the form of daily interactive, improvisational theater programs in which children are encouraged to put on costumes, assume roles and — with the help of an actor/director/narrator — act out a story. It’s my childhood experience writ large, and I still get to experience it daily in my work at the museum.
And in Ogden, there are plenty of other places where that guided experience happens.
I was very excited to learn “Kids Act Up” is among the theater programs available this summer. It’s a two-week summer camp for kids ages 8 to 18 at Peery’s Egyptian Theater in downtown Ogden. Anne Reeder, the theater’s event manager, tells me their camp experience this summer will even feed into auditions for the new Ogden Musical Theater production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
To the south, Ziegfeld Theater has an ongoing program for young performers in their Zig Youth program, which includes performances on the Ziegfeld stage and changes to audition for shows that are part of the regular Ziegfeld season.
For hopeful young (and old) actors who are at least 6 years old, Beverly’s Terrace Plaza Playhouse is auditioning for its production of the musical “Annie.” This one’s coming up soon — auditions for the production start April 22. But if you miss this opportunity, don’t fret. The playhouse frequently puts on shows that invite young actors to audition.
And of course, in addition to the year-round, daily, drop-in theater programs at Treehouse, the museum in downtown Ogden is offering two weeklong summer theater camps for children ages 7 to 11, each ending with a performance on the Treehouse stage.
Each of these organizations is a working theater that caters to family audiences and provide chances for children to see and start their own experiences in the theater. And there are many others.
Turns out when it comes to young folks and theater, Ogden is a pretty swell place to start.