EAGLE-VAIL ” Ten-year-old Rio Garton isn’t wearing any shoes. He’s dreadfully worried.
“You’re an orphan, Rio. You don’t need shoes,” says Greta Assaly, director of The Children’s Theatre School.
In the nonprofit’s 13th summer of turning Vail Valley locals into Broadway stars, the theatre school presents Annie Jr., the famed musical about a little orphan who, with hope in her heart, escapes her New York orphanage, meets Sandy the stray dog and gets adopted for Christmas by billionaire Daddy Warbucks.
Tuesday evening in Battle Mountain High School’s auditorium hurried children find their place on stage in preparation for the scene when Daddy Warbucks takes Annie to the movies for the first time.
Five minutes ago, chaos filled the room with 50 kids talking, dancing, laughing, rehearsing. Assaly calls out a scene. Suddenly, they’re all acting like adults. Everything’s in place ” almost.
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“Where’s the dog?” Assaly shouts.
Steve Sievers, 10, lets out an eerily good “woof” from the audience and runs to the stage, wide-eyed, hands perched outward near his chest. He takes position next to the fire hydrant and the scene proceeds.
These kids aren’t amateurs. They’re dedicated, young professionals who all take this acting thing to heart.
“Some people, at a very young age, decide they want to be a part of the theatre experience.” Assaly theorizes. “They may not end up on a Broadway stage or they may.”
Assaly founded The Children’s Theatre School with dreams of sharing her love of acting with young children.
“I just feel that window of learning, that age of childhood, is very important in their development,” she says. “This is more than learning the skills of theater, it’s being a part of a theater family.”
The school’s philosophy, Assaly says, is that everyone is valued, no matter how small or large the role.
“Theater is kind of like life that way,” she proposes.
With a week to go before show time and three weeks of rehearsals down, the kids have a keen understanding of what it takes to put on a major production, and everyone is busy making sure it’s the best it can be.
“You start with a blank canvas,” Assaly says. “Every day we fill it, creating characters, creating scenes, creating movement, creating costumes. They own the show.”
At this stage of preparation, the kids leave nothing to fate, conscientiously developing their characters down to the last detail with the help of Associate Director Dick Gustafson, who, aside from painting all the sets, works with the children on developing their characters.
“When you’re dealing with a child who’s in a role he or she is completely unfamiliar with, it’s important to help him or her understand the character,” said the 6-year Children’s School veteran.
“I usually take a page from my theater journal. I write down every trait I can think of like when he was born. I draw a character sketch ” I also like to draw.” said 12-year-old Cooper Kaminsky in full costume of his character Daddy Warbucks, complete with a fake mustache. “I usually like to have a character voice, too,” he says, his voice dropping.
You can tell Cooper has done his homework. Even offstage he answers Assaly with the debonaire of an aristocratic billionaire.
A handful of the children will play different roles for the two shows to ensure as many kids get a chance at a lead as they can.
Stephan Kuhn, 10, who plays Pepper for one of the performances, has a trick he uses to get into character.
“In the script, it says that Pepper is mean and 12-years-old and the toughest of the orphans,” Stephan says. “I just talk the way I talk to my older brother, Cassidy, when I get angry at him.”
Emily Boyd, 10, plays orphan Tessie for one of the performances.
“I’m very happy usually. Tessie is very whiny and sassy. It’s kind of hard to play her because I don’t really do it in real life,” she says. “It’s kind of fun though, because you can be someone else besides yourself.”
Bailey Garton, 12, who plays Annie for one performance elaborates.
“When you act, you forget about everything else,” Bailey says. “It’s sort of like a vacation, but better. It’s like a vacation from yourself.”
Ari Shapiro, 12, enjoys acting for the same reason.
“It’s like you can live several lives,” he says.
Listening to what these kids have to say reveals a glimpse of who the future, who they might grow up to be. Every experience they have now will lead them there.
“The show will close, but my hope is that these experiences will stay with them forever,” Assaly says. “These are the kids that are Vail tomorrow.”
Staff Writer Laura A. Ball can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 619, or email@example.com.