Oddfellows Playhouse Youth Theater: Acting, for the Future

By Charmagne Eckert

There’s nothing like the magic of theater; that moment when the lights dim, the air becomes electric with palpable anticipation, and the curtain opens to reveal another world where, for a few hours, audience and performers alike are transported to a reality far from their day to day existence. It is this goose-bump-producing experience, with its power to entertain, inspire, provoke and even transform us that we all know and love about the theatrical experience. Sharing this legacy with eager young people is what Oddfellows Playhouse Youth Theater has been doing so effectively for over forty years.

That participating in a theatrical venture is loads of fun is no secret, but the magic for the thousands of young people who have participated in the circus and dramatic arts programs offered by the playhouse since 1975 runs much deeper. “There is a particular alchemy [that happens], between the safe space, the creativity, and the acceptance of whoever [the young people] are that leads to the joy of being empowered. To be able to engage with a story, become another character; to be celebrated for coming up with a creative way to get three jokes into a routine – our students are given access to that magical thing they might have watched from the audience, and now they are being included in that with their peers and with teaching artists who they adore, and with audience members of all ages,” explains Artistic Director, Kristen Palmer. It is these qualities of enhanced confidence, creative integrity and an awareness of the similarities and unique attributes of others that are the embodiment of the three-fold mission of Oddfellows: Artistic excellence, Social justice, and Youth development. The classes and performance possibilities offered provide the framework for ‘community creativity;’ an experiential collaborative process, which encourages the capacity for young people to develop confidence, self knowledge and to be able to effectively connect with people.

A vintage redbrick building on Middletown’s Washington Street, with an arched marble proscenium over the entry door and particolored marquis, is home to Oddfellows Playhouse. The facility provides a 110-seat theater with a professionally equipped light and sound booth, classroom and rehearsal spaces, and a technical shop for the crafting of sets and props. Classes and programs offered by Oddfellows are designed to foster a cooperative, adventurous spirit in youths ranging in age from 3 year old preschoolers, to high school seniors. The youngest are engaged with song, movement and group games designed to support each child’s creative confidence and collaborative capabilities. Older students have the opportunity to explore ensemble work, improvisation, cabaret workshop, and the ever-popular circus training courses available for beginners as well as more advanced aspiring circus performers. The Jr. and Teen Companies take on full productions ranging from Shakespeare to original pieces by distinguished contemporary playwrights – all of which are selected to illuminate a rich variety of human encounters and that have some element that the young performers can connect to their own life experience. Company participants go through the full theatrical process from open workshops and auditions before each production, to rehearsals, performance, and post-production reflection on the experience.

There is no exclusion at Oddfellows, and any young actor who commits to the production is cast in a role. Those interested in backstage opportunities are also welcomed, and regardless of whether a role in front of or behind the scenes is chosen, a supportive, creative and welcoming environment is ensured by the professional theater artist/educators who mentor the student actors and technicians. All the programs offered are open to any young person who wishes to explore ‘hands on’ the world of theater and, with a robust scholarship program, it is the policy of Oddfellows Playhouse that no interested student will ever be turned away for the inability to pay.

Beyond the rich personal growth supported by the programs offered at Oddfellows, there is the very pragmatic opportunity to develop practical expertise that students can potentially apply to future careers – whether in the theater or elsewhere. Administrative skills, carpentry and building, set, costume, and lighting design are but a few areas where there is opportunity to learn skills that might apply – not only within professions related to stage, event, and film production – but to other vocations as well. As Palmer explains, “If you know how to bring an event to life artistically and technically you have a set of skills that you can make a living at and you can also make a huge impact with your ideas, towards any change you might like to see in the world. For some kids connecting their creative work to a practical outlet is a really significant moment that can lead to a career or educational path that can serve them throughout their life. Often realizing that those things are just skills that anyone can learn, is tremendously empowering.”

As an independent, nonprofit community art space, Oddfellows Playhouse offers an open venue where young people can participate fully in something that develops their confidence, self-knowledge and skills including empathy, communication, social and emotional intelligence, awareness of differences, and the ability to relate with people. “When a young person gets the opportunity to contribute and be valued on their own terms, that process lets them turn around and contribute back [to society] on their own terms, within all of their communities. And it’s that connection with people; the sharing, respect, and mutual support, that is the real magic,” says Palmer.

For over 40 years Oddfellows Playhouse has flourished as a direct result of the continuous involvement of the community; through financial support, volunteering, board membership, and committee work. There are opportunities for internships and apprenticeships for young people interested in gaining experience in performing, technical elements, art education, circus training, and work in non-profits. And of course all children and youth are enthusiastically welcomed to come and experience first hand the joy and wonder of the theatrical experience. “I would encourage anyone who values the arts, our young people, and our mission, to get involved in any way – come out to support the events, see what we do. Come an experience the sheer joy of these wonderful kids. It really is infectious!” invites Palmer.

Registration is open for the Summer Circus program as well as a variety of Classes in acting and performance. Be sure to check the website for upcoming productions.

For more information about Oddfellows Playhouse Youth Theater go to: http://oddfellows.org Oddfellows Playhouse is located at: 128 Washington Street, Middletown, CT 06457
Phone: (860) 347-6143 info@oddfellows.org

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