Revenge of the Drama Geeks

Why it’s almost cool to be a theater kid
by Chad Jones, Staff Writer
Fremont Argus – May 21, 2006

At her elementary school, Amy Mendonca is known as “the drama geek.”

“I’m the girl who sings show tunes day in and day out — any show tune,” says 11-year-old Amy, a sixth grader at Joshua Chadbourne Elementary in Fremont.

Theater has never, ever been seen as the cool after school option for young people, at least not when compared to sports.

But in the Bay Area, where it sometimes seems there’s a child onstage warbling “Tomorrow” every 25 minutes, theater is what you might call cool-ish.

“I wouldn’t say theater is cool,” Amy continues, “but it’s not nerdy either. It’s more kind of in the middle. I wouldn’t call it ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m a drama nerd!’ but it’s also not ‘Oh, she’s so wonderful because she sings show tunes.'”

Amy comes by her love of theater naturally. Her mom, Claire Mendonca, and dad, Ray Mendonca, were high school sweethearts at Fremont’s Irvington High School, where they appeared together in a production of the musical “Mame.”

As the parents of two daughters — Amy’s little sister is Marie Claire (called M.C. by her friends and family) — the Mendoncas had hoped to instill a love of theater in their children.

Turns out they didn’t have to try very hard. Both girls have been involved in StarStruck Theatre, a youth theater program run by Lori Stokes in Fremont.

“One of Amy’s teachers, after observing Amy in class, suggested that she might be well-suited to the stage, so we looked for a children’s theater program for her,” Ray Mendonca says. “We’re lucky to live in an area where there are a lot of options for children to explore their talents. We discovered StarStruck as audience members and left the show kind of surprised and amazed by how good their work was.”

Students in Stokes’ 11-year-old company are required to audition for shows, which means not everyone gets in. That’s different from a lot of local youth theater programs in which tuition is paid and the child is accepted.

Amy and M.C. have been cast in numerous StarStruck shows. The entire Mendonca family performed together in “Oliver!” two years ago, and Amy just finished a production of Disney’s “Aladdin, Junior,” a kid-size stage version of the Disney cartoon. Amy says she would love to be in the next show, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” but that cast ranges in age from 14 to 20, so she’s not quite old enough.

Theater and the real world

When the Mendoncas went looking for theater programs for their daughters, they had a lot of choices.

There are the education arms of our biggest regional theaters, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, as well as established programs at larger theaters such as California Shakespeare Theater and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.

And just about every community theater you can think of offers some sort of after-school theater program or theater summer camp.

There are also a number of companies dedicated solely to children’s theater. In addition to Fremont’s StarStruck, there are the Peninsula Youth Theatre and Palo Alto Children’s Theatre on the Peninsula and Kids Take the Stage, an Alameda-based program that now extends to just about every corner of the Bay Area.

Should my kid try theater?

One of the first questions a parent might consider asking about extracurricular theater activities is: Why theater?

Barrett Lindsay-Steiner, an in-demand children’s theater writer and director in the East Bay, advises parents to give it at try.

“I tell them they won’t be sorry because the tools kids acquire in theater are incredible: self-confidence, poise, flexibility under pressure, self-esteem, teamwork, verbal skills and communication,” Lindsay-Steiner says. “These are all things that will help a young actor succeed in the real world. Plus, they get to hang out with other really cool kids. Theater kids are very nurturing and supportive as a rule.”

Two of Lindsay-Steiner’s students, siblings Emily and Scotty McCormick of Lafayette, are already seasoned pros. Scotty, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Happy Valley Elementary, has been in 14 shows, and 13-year-old Emily, an eighth grader at Stanley Middle School, has been in 13.

Scotty was just in Lindsay-Steiner’s “Manhattan,” a cheeky blend of “Snow White” and “Chicago,” and Emily recently starred as Laurey in “Oklahoma!”

Both young McCormicks highly recommend theater.

“I had a choice between acting and karate,” Scotty says. “I chose acting because theater is more exciting than sports. I like the thrill of being onstage and performing in front of people.”

Emily says she was never very good at sports but finds she’s pretty good at performing.

“You get to be a different person and step into someone else’s shoes,” she says. “And it’s fun to show your family a different side of you. They get to see how hard you’ve worked.”

Finding the right spotlight

If you think your child has talent and would like to get your budding thespian into a program, StarStruck founder Stokes says you should do what the Mendoncas did: find several companies that interest you and go see their work.

“Everybody has different criteria for what they think is good,” Stokes says. “There’s good children’s theater and not-so-good children’s theater.”

One thing Stokes wants to make clear to parents is that no matter which program they choose, they need to be involved.

“Children’s theater couldn’t exist without parents,” Stokes says. “When a child is in a show, it’s really a whole-family commitment.”

Ray and Claire Mendonca, for instance, have been called upon to do all kinds of things for Stokes when their daughters have been in her shows.

“We’ve helped with set and costume construction, programs, posters, rehearsals and organizing a fundraising dinner and auction,” Claire Mendonca says. “The kids in the show bond and so do the parents who are helping out. We’re all on the same team.”

“I like the parent participation aspect,” Ray Mendonca adds. “It gets the whole family involved, and you’re doing more than just showing up to cheer them on. We’re doing our thing and the kids are doing their thing, but we’re all in it together.”

Programs that involve the full production of a show are usually the most work-intensive for parents, while a summer camp program is less.

Another major variable is price. Stokes’ StarStruck, for instance, is $225 to participate in a show. Classes at Kids Take the Stage range from $195 to $695, while the upcoming summer intensives at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre run $1,040 to $1,100.

Give them a yes

Michael Lederman, director of the Coastal Repertory Theatre Conservatory in Half Moon Bay, is often cornered by parents and asked for advice about theater programs.

“I tell parents to first take a deep breath and then ask themselves this question: ‘Are you getting your child involved in theater for the child’s experience or for your own experience?'” Lederman says. “‘Is this something that my child is really passionate about or is it more for my own need for recognition?’ That’s hard for parents. I’ve had parents say to me, ‘Hey, you know, you were right. I realized there’s too much of me in this.’ I think that happens more with kids in dance, but it does happen in theater as well.”

Lederman started the CRT youth conservatory program 12 years ago with 12 students and now regularly has 100. He just closed a sold-out production of “Fiddler on the Roof, Junior” (a revised, shortened version of the famous musical) that boasted a cast of 97 of kids in first grade through high school. If pressed, he will take kindergarteners.

Unlike Stokes and her auditions, Lederman takes all comers and will double and triple cast his shows to give everyone a chance to perform in a meaty role.

“That might mean giving a kid who’s not the best singer the opportunity to sing the lead role,” Lederman says. “Some kids who aren’t natural singers will likely hear ‘no’ all the time. I want to give them a ‘yes’ because I’m trying to get kids excited about theater, give them a great experience and let them discover the joy of participating and the responsibility and reward of being part of a cast.”

Whatever you do, don’t expect instant stardom for your child.

“The important thing is that your child is having a good time,” Lederman says. “If he or she is meant to be a star, it’ll happen without your having to do too much.”

No divas (young or old)

In the musical “Gypsy,” the character of Rose is the stage mother from hell. She pushes her kids on stage whether they want to be there or not and lives vicariously through their time in the spotlight.

If she can’t be a star, darn it, her kids will be.

That image of the pushy stage parent has some bearing on reality, but Stokes, the mother of two performing daughters (and a non-performing son), says she doesn’t have to deal with that much.

“There are stereotypical stage parents out there, but it’s less common than you might imagine,” Stokes says. “Mainly their issues are about attention. They want their kids to get more attention and to feel special. I’ve never really had to take a parent aside to talk about their behavior.

“What I do get a lot of is kids at auditions who focus intensely on getting a lead part. I want the lead! I want the lead! But after the audition, that goes away and they think about the group. I try to instill in both parents and kids that the goal is to be supportive of everyone. I don’t go for that diva thing.”

Lederman is also vehemently anti-diva.

“I don’t like an ego bloated by success or bent out of shape by failure,” he says. “And there are always failures no matter what level of theater. But in 12 years, we’ve never had a kid run off stage crying. We’ve had mini-meltdowns backstage, but we can deal with that.”

When Lederman deals with pushy parents — and he says there’s always one or two — he says he usually has to make the parent understand that a child actor needs to build skills gradually.

“A few years ago, a woman with a second-grade daughter came up to me telling how much her daughter wanted the lead in ‘Annie’,” Lederman recalls. “I had to find a way to tell her second graders don’t play Annie. They can hardly read the script.”

Other parents are simply eager for the children to accomplish great things.

“I’ve had some parents tell me they didn’t enroll their child in my program because they didn’t think I’d make their child a star,” Lederman says. “Let’s be honest. The odds of that happening in any theater program are small.”

But Lederman’s young charges do go on to bigger and better things.

“I remember auditioning for a play at TheatreWorks in Mountain View and knew they needed some kids in the show, so I brought some of my high school-age students,” he recalls. “I didn’t even get a callback, but one of my students got the second lead.”

Drama geeks rule

Lederman, called “Bub” by his students, says he has to laugh when he sees the kids running around in T-shirts with “Drama Queen” emblazoned across the chest.

“They all get so theater savvy,” he says. “They’re always buzzing about the new musicals and asking me, ‘When are we going to do ‘Wicked’ or ‘Hairspray’?’ I tell them I’ll get right on it.”

A theater lover from his earliest stage experience in second grade, Lederman became a professional actor and made his television debut at age 16 in an episode of “Charlie’s Angels.” He continues acting and teaches to pay the bills. He says being in theater as a kid was a good thing for him.

“I want my students to take away what I took away with me: an unwavering, undying, complete passion for what’s magical and fantastic about theater,” he says. “I want them to love theater, either as a participant or as an audience member, for the rest of their lives. I want them to look back on their experiences onstage and be able to tell their grandchildren about how amazing it was when they were in ‘Fiddler’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or whatever.”

If you ask Emily or Scotty McCormick if they consider themselves drama geeks, they’ll say yes and tell you that’s a good thing.

So will Amy Mendonca, who is proud that her class continually votes her “most dramatic.”

She’ll be auditioning for StarStruck’s “Peter Pan” next fall, even though she knows it’ll be sad when it’s over.

“You really become like a huge family in a show,” she says. “It’s hard at the end of each show. We’re all crying because we don’t want it to end. But it does, and then there’s the next one.”

Content for now to be in the chorus, Amy has her sights set higher.

“It would be nice to star in something, but I know I’m young,” Amy says. “It’s OK being in the chorus. My time will come.”

Where kids can act up all summer long

Here’s a starter list of children’s theater programs in the Bay Area.

– American Conservatory Theater Young Conservatory — For young actors 8 to 19. Two-week and one-week junior acting sessions for ages 8 to 10 begin June 19. Tuition is $300-$600. Four-week middle school program begins June 19. Four-week high school program begins June 19. Tuition for the middle and high school programs is $315-$595. Call (415) 439-2444 or visit http://www.act-sf.org or e-mail youngconservatory@act-sf.org.

– Belasco Theatre Company — Youth theater company for ages 6 to 19 produces professional quality musicals. Auditions for the next season are in August. Fees are monthly plus expenses for costumes and makeup and separate dance classes if necessary. Some scholarships available. Call (925) 256-9516 or visit http://www.belascotheatrecompany.com.

– Berkeley Repertory School of Theatre — Summer theater intensive for students entering grades 6 through 12. Session one is June 19 through July 14, and session two is July 17 through Aug. 11 in downtown Berkeley. Tuition is $1,040 for session one and $1,100 for session two. A limited number of scholarships are available. Call (510) 647-2972 or visit  www.berkeleyrep.org/school.

– Broadway by the Bay Conservatory — Summer camp for performers 8 to 18 runs June 26 through July 20. Camp for ages 5 to 7 also runs June 26 through July 20. Fees start at $525 for half day to $925 for the full day. Call (650) 579-5565, ext. 207 or e-mail David Greenbaum at david@bbbay.org.

– California Shakespeare Theater — Five-week theater camp for ages 8 to 18 runs June 26 through July 28 in Lafayette. Tuition is $1,100. Two-week camp runs July 31 through Aug. 11 in El Cerrito. Tuition is $425. Call (510) 548-3422 or e-mail learn@calshakes.org or visit http://www.calshakes.org.

– Coastal Repertory Theatre — Classes for grades 1 through 12 begin in September. Tuition is $275 for a semester and $550 for a full year. Classes work toward production of a full-scale musical. Call (650) 726-0267 or visit http://www.coastalrep.com.

– Kids Take the Stage — Classes in performance, acting technique and behind-the-scenes skills at three age levels: 3-6; 7-11; 12-18. Classes can be found in San Ramon, Newark, Fremont, Oakland, Alameda, Los Altos and Redwood City. Various summer camps begin in late June and early July. Summer camp tuition ranges from $195 to $695. Call (510) 864-7061 or visit http://www.kidstakethestage.com.

– Palo Alto Children’s Theatre — For nearly 75 years, this company has been producing about 20 shows a year and educating students ages 4-11 in acting, dance, set design and construction, costuming and makeup, the design and use of sound and light systems and performance direction and production. Tuition for classes ranges from $75 to $110. Call (650) 463-4930 or visit http://www.city.paloalto.ca.us/community-services/theater.

– Peninsula Youth Theatre — Classes and productions for youth ages 11/2 and up in Mountain View. Auditions for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” May 27. Summer programs are filling up quickly but a few openings remain. Tuition ranges from $60 to $275. Call (650) 988-8798 or visit http://www.pytnet.org.

– San Francisco Shakespeare Festival — Shakespeare camps for youth 7 to 18 around the Bay Area run June 19 through Aug. 18 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fee is $395 (or $520 with optional aftercare). Call (415) 558-0888 or visit http://www.sfshakes.org.

– StarStruck Theatre — Musical theater slots are by audition only. Next production is “Thoroughly Modern Millie” July 28 through Aug. 12. Musical theater summer camp for ages 7 to 12 June 19 through 30 in Fremont. Tuition is $225. Call (510) 659-1319 or visit https://starstrucktheatre.org.