From the moment Heather Miles took the stage as a third grader, she was mesmerized. “My first part was small – I was a sheep – but I still remember it being the most exciting thing in the world to me,” says the co-founder and artistic director of Broken Leg Theater in Chesterfield. The applause left her buzzing. And later, exposure to musicals like Annie and The Sound of Music confirmed to Miles that theater defined just what life should be: people bursting into song at random times!
Identity and Confidence
But it was more than the applause that touched her at her core. For Miles, performing became a respite from being labeled the poor kid at school and a frequent target for bullying. “My mom was sixteen when she had me, and my 21-year-old father was abusive,” she says, “and for all the heart I knew I had, I still got picked on because of my tattered clothing and who I was.”
The stage is where Miles discovered her voice, and in co-founding Broken Leg Theater in 2014 with four like-minded friends, she now strives to help other kids find theirs. “I was inspired by teachers who saw past the little girl in second-hand clothes and encouraged me to sing because they knew it was building my confidence,” says Miles. “By seventh grade, the abusive father was out of my life and my situation improved. As I grew up, I realized I wanted to do for other kids what had been done for me.”
But the stage would have to wait, as her life took a different direction when Miles had a baby right after high school and another a decade later. “It was twenty years before I auditioned again, all the while knowing the passion was still in there,” she says. Once her kids got older, Miles tried out for Alice in Wonderland, and was cast as Cheshire Cat. Thrilled to be back on the stage that had impacted her so deeply, Miles went for the role of Mrs. Hannigan in Annie. When she did not get the part, she turned to directing and fell in love. “Directing allowed me to encourage and mentor kids in a way I couldn’t otherwise, enabling me to fulfill my dream of inspiring kids.”
Erin Thomas-Foley, who heads up the team at SPARC (School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community), also strongly believes in the positive impact of theater. “When a child can get up in front of an audience and do something and receive applause, they feel confident, supported, and worthy,” she says, adding that one focus of SPARC’s mission is to bring profound influence through theater into the public schools. “The identity kids find in theater manifests itself in real life. They take that feeling of worthiness with them as they walk down the halls at school and eventually into the work world.”
Midlothian mom of three, Lynne Tighe-Boland has watched that confidence emerge in her 13-year-old son, Gavin, because of theater’s impact. “Being able to stand up on a stage transfers to so many aspects in life. And confidence comes not only from being in front of an audience, but also behind the scenes when kids give input for the show and the director really listens,” says Tighe-Boland.
For a parent, few things are more rewarding than watching your child discover his niche. Tighe-Boland saw the transformation of her son unfold on stage. Landing the lead role at his school in Fantastic Mr. Fox was a great start for his first audition. But it wasn’t until his second audition at Broken Leg Theater, when he was cast for a minor part in Oliver, that he realized his love for performance. The fact that he did not get a lead, yet still knew this was something he desired to do, was telling. “It’s easy to love something when you are in the limelight, but you actually know you love something when you’re in the background and still can’t wait to do it,” says his mom. “It’s not getting leads that has mattered to him, but being a part of something he truly enjoys.”
That said, being cast as the lead in Willy Wonka last fall was a definite confidence-builder for the Tomahawk Creek Middle School eighth grader. And while any parent would be thrilled to see her child land a leading role, his mom knew there was something more critical happening with her son. Having had a series of negative experiences in elementary school, by middle school, she could tell his self-esteem had begun to plummet. “You see your child go through some of these changes, and you feel very helpless to be able to do anything about it,” says Tighe-Boland. “With each part, I could see him start to transform and come back to that gregarious person he had been before – with the ad libs and quick wit. He was returning to his true self after it had been absent for a while.”
Leadership and Initiative
As if the restoration of confidence weren’t enough, Tighe-Boland saw leadership skills begin to emerge in Gavin. “Watching him as he develops himself through theater has been a bonus,” she says, adding that her son is getting involved in all aspects of performing. “He is currently student director in Broken Leg’s Peter Pan, and seeing that sense of standard – how he wants to make sure that things don’t just get done, but get done correctly – it is a pleasure to watch.”
And what about grades, chores, sports, jobs? How does a kid who has to be at rehearsals most weeknights get it all done? “His grades haven’t suffered at all. In fact, having the target of regular play practice has kept him on track because he has to get things done.”
West End mom of two, Jennifer Shively, agrees, recalling when her son, Jay, had a 42-hour rehearsal week for a VCU production of Addams Family. “Responsibility is a built-in part of accepting any role. He had to work hard at practice, and work hard at learning time-management, and he succeeded in doing both.”
“There is something about a kid taking on responsibility and doing it successfully,” adds Brooke Abrahamsen, who serves as artistic director of CharacterWorks (formerly Christian Youth Theater or CYT). “It grows them, stretches them to learn responsibility and the definition of commitment; and it is incredibly enriching to expose kids to classics like Music Man and West Side Story. Some of these kids wouldn’t have heard of them otherwise.”
Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge to give kids just enough courage. Ellen Papa, founder and director of Studio Performance Academy in the West End, believes parents should do their homework and equip their kids. “You wouldn’t throw them into athletics or dance without some knowledge and prep beforehand; it is the same with theater,” she says. Parents can encourage and prepare kids by getting them off on the right foot. “I often have parents who come to me with children who are quite shy, and I tell them it is important that the first taste of theater be positive because it might be the last if kids have a negative experience.” By incorporating games and crafts into her program, Papa creates a fun, stress-free environment in her studio where kids feel safe.
And fun and theater go hand-in-hand. “Remind kids to have as much fun as possible up there, and remember, the directors want you to succeed – they are excited for you, and pulling for you,” says Abrahamsen. Parents should remind kids that directors are teachers and mentors – not scary people. “Everyone gets nervous, but if kids can take some deep breaths, be themselves, and let their personalities show, they will have an audition they can feel good about.”
Miles, of Broken Leg Theater, adds that from that very first audition, directors are eager to show kids how. “I take every opportunity I can to teach them something about any and every aspect of theater,” she says, adding that kids should show up clean, tidy, and ready for movement. “Nerves are a normal part of auditions,” says Miles, “even if you feel you can only start by moving your mouth, just start.”
Once kids get their bearings, initiative follows naturally. Shively says that with three years of auditions under his belt, her 13-year-old son, Jay, has begun to think seriously about a career in theater – even landing roles in a few commercials on his own initiative. “And once his sister, Caroline, saw how much fun he was having after that first tryout, she also put herself out there and began to audition,” she says, adding that the 15-year-old now aspires to be a screenwriter.
Friendship and Community
The theater community tends to be a tight-knit group, and the vote is often unanimous: The hilarious mishaps, excitement of the jitters, the challenge of owning a character, and even the thrill of the spotlight are all surpassed by the friendship and sense of community that comes with being part of a show. “The theater has become our community. Learning how to be on a team, and how to be part of something bigger than yourself is invaluable,” says Abrahamsen.
“The community part has been the best part for the kids – a place to belong,” agrees Shively, adding that the whole family gets in on the shows together. “Costumes, backstage, props, tickets, ushering – there are so many aspects of theater, and it is a true family event. And because CharacterWorks is faith-based, the spiritual element is a real faith-builder.”
Even when being part of that team has its downtime, the sense of community is still present and the life lessons priceless. “It is important to learn that you don’t always get what you want,” says Shively, who had the opportunity to implement the message when neither child got the part they wanted in an audition for Beauty and the Beast from CharacterWorks. Their mom encouraged her kids to take it in stride, grow from it, and embrace the less-desired roles, which they did.
“It is an important lesson that spills over into other aspects of life,” agrees Abrahamsen. “You have to take every job seriously and you will stand out.” She advises parents to remind kids that they will not always get what they want, but embracing every role is important.
Despite a few bumps along the way, Gavin Boland has developed some real friendships because of his involvement in theater. “The first thing I tell parents who are considering encouraging their child to audition is that they are going to make friends,” says Tighe-Boland. “They are nice kids who have the same goal, and they get along.”
“I love the fact that I walk in and the kids come running to hug me,” says Miles, who still keeps in touch with her own former chorus and theater teachers. “I want that with these kids. I want them to think back and remember me.” Miles recalls her first time directing when a child around ten years old showed up wearing a crazy hat and neon shirt. “When I saw the kids shoot her a disapproving look, I quickly reminded them that one of the best things about theater is that you can express yourself any way you want because everybody belongs here,” she says. Miles was delighted when the kids followed her lead, and welcomed the new girl.
For Miles, the sense of community where both kids and adults are there for each other is incredibly fulfilling. After all, it was during a production that she forged a friendship with the Broken Leg Theater co-founders – Lewis Daniel, Meghan Grilliot, Kristin Koontz, and Sheri Daniel – and the crew quickly realized they shared the same vision revolving around theater. “It was around the kitchen table while our children played in the next room, that the five of us thought we could put our strengths, skills, and heads together and do this on our own.” That is just what the five friends have done, and not for self-profit, to boot. “No one is paid. It all goes back into the theater; it is honestly a labor of love.”
For Miles, theater has become family. “Last fall, at the cast party after our final Wonka performance, I looked around that restaurant and saw all the seats filled with parents and kids and I thought, ‘We did this, we started this because the five of us had a vision and a dream.’” Miles is gratified with the difference she and her friends have made through theater’s platform, and with every kid that shows up to audition, she strives to reach out and help them grow, give them confidence, cheer them on. “Making my mark on the world through theater is so fulfilling to me because I think back about myself and still recall with great empathy that little third- grade girl on stage so many years ago.”
The Reluctant Thespian
When my middle-schooler expressed interest in auditioning for his first play, we practiced until he felt prepared. When we pulled into the parking lot for the audition, however, he announced he couldn’t do it. “Get out of the car and go in there,” I said. He did. Not only did he get a part, he also discovered a few things about himself: He enjoyed theater and he could overcome his fears.
Don’t let frazzled nerves get the best of your hesitant youngsters. Instead, enroll them in one of the many performing arts camps available in Richmond to help overcome stage fright, and put a slightly bolder foot forward. “The first taste at summer camp is a good place to get the feel of singing, dancing, voice, and stage presence without the pressure or the stress,” says Ellen Papa, founder of Studio Performance Academy.
Each day of camp, Papa and her staff lead campers in rehearsing songs, choreography, and delivering lines, mixed in with some fun and games. “Each camp provides an overall positive experience where they can find their confidence before we end the week with a performance.”
Many local theater camps also incorporate staging and production elements, like set and scenery construction, and wardrobe and costume design. SPARC offers a camp that is devoted to showing kids the wonders of working on a tech crew. If a child dips his or her toe into the water of the theater, odds are good there will be a fulfilling role, whether it’s onstage or in a different capacity.
“Kids shouldn’t be intimidated to try,” adds Brooke Abrahamsen, artistic director of CharacterWorks. “We want all kids to have the opportunity to grow. It is so fun and such a great experience.” CharacterWorks also offers many camps, and requires a class before kids can audition for a show. If kids are still feeling apprehensive about auditioning, encourage them to try anyway, says Abrahamsen. “We have a list and a track they can practice with and we provide an accompanist,” she says, adding all levels, all ages, and all talents are welcome.
Photos: Kandid Kids of Richmond, Tom Topinka, Sid Koerin