Children's theater spreading out in shows next door
Nearly a dozen children gather around director Brian Milauskas on the stage of Winchester's new Next Door Theater.
"Pretend you're holding something that tells the audience about your character," Milauskas says. "Now tell me what it is and why they have it."
The youngsters, ages 8 through 11, are enthusiastic and thoughtful as they consider items that might be carried by the characters they play in the new musical "The Curse of Rumpelstiltskin" Within minutes, Milauskas has them thinking about the story and ready to read through the script he and his team have finished writing, just a few weeks before the show opens Saturday.
"These are great ages," says Milauskas, "because they can read the script, they're excited about being on stage, and they have a lot of focus."
Milauskas has spent the last 17 years getting youngsters excited about being on stage as the founder and creative director at Kidstock Creative Theater Education Center, which has offered summer, vacation, and after-school theater and arts programming. His program has been inclusive, not audition-based, and focuses, he says, on presentation, participation, and education outside of the classroom.
"When we started," Milauskas says, "arts education programs in schools were being slashed, and we felt we were filling a need."
The summer camp and after-school programs range from preschool through high school with students creating some of the artful costumes or set pieces and, in the older groups, writing the storyline themselves. Since starting Kidstock, Milauskas, whose staff consists of five full-time, year-round employees and up to 40 during the busy summer camp program, has expanded his reach to include the Once Upon a Time participatory theater in conjunction with the Lyric Stage Company in Boston, some programming in the Winchester middle school, and the Pond Room Players, a theater troupe based at Winchester's Jenks Senior Center, where scripts are developed for 60- to 80-year-old actors.
Despite the range of his programming, Milauskas says when the warehouse next door to the Mill Building on Cross Street - where Kidstock and Ballet Arts Centre share space - became available, "it seemed like perfect timing for us to branch out a little," he says. "We called it the Next Door Theater because of its proximity to our home base in the Mill Building, and because it's symbolic of the next door we can open."
The 135-seat theater opened last November and Milauskas says he's eager to make the nonprofit theater available to everyone in the Winchester community. "It's sometimes difficult to get access to school auditoriums, and this space offered both Ballet Arts and Kidstock a chance to expand our performance opportunities and invite others in, too."
Although they're still just getting the theater up and running, Milauskas is excited about how busy the space is through April. After "The Curse of Rumpelstiltskin," the theater is booked with Kidstock's vacation week family event, "The Emperor's New Kangaroo," Feb. 18; the Winchester Players production of David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," Feb. 26-28, March 5-7; Once Upon A Time with Kidstock's audience interactive "Goldilocks & the Three Pigs," March 8; Cahill Live Music Night is March 14; Brio Integrated Theater Workshop March 21; Ballet Arts Centre's production of "Cinderella" March 21-22; and a screening of Pamela Boll's documentary, "Who Does She Think She Is?" March 29.
"We're eager to have a strong mix of music, theater, dance, corporate meetings, whatever anyone wants to bring in," says Milauskas. "The ultimate goal is for the theater to be free for anyone to use as long as they split the box office receipts to cover costs."
Back on the Next Door Theater stage, the cast of "The Curse of Rumpelstiltskin" gathers to read through the final pages of their script. Although music director Lesley Anderson isn't at this rehearsal, that doesn't stop the kids from breaking into the original songs she wrote for the show.
"Music is the great equalizer among kids," Milauskas says as he waits patiently for the troupe to finish another number a cappella. "We really believe kids excel at creative problem-solving. We respect the source material but then approach it as their story. They have to develop their own voices and they can't be stymied by not knowing what's next because it's their voice."
For Kidstock, "The Curse of Rumpelstiltskin" was something of a departure since it was the first time they held auditions for a show. "We wanted to give the kids that experience," Milauskas says, "but we cast everyone for this first show. The new theater gives us the chance to try new things, and ultimately I'd like to produce adult summer stock here. That would be something really different for us."
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.