Teaching Kids to Perform

I arrive at the Stone Oak Youth Theater (SOYT) on a hot May afternoon, as two very different classes are about to start. In the original facility, a group of 7- to 12-year-olds are gathering to learn how to make and operate puppets, while two doors down in the same shopping strip, another mixed-aged group is taking part in a screen acting class. These are just two of the disciplines taught at this three-year-old studio founded by musical theater enthusiast and performer/choreographer Maryclaire Ireland. Other classes offered year-round include acting for the stage, musical theater, dance, comedy and improvisation. There are also “one-day-wonders,” which are single offerings for students to “learn something cool” without long-term commitment.

In addition, kids and teens can sign up for private piano, voice and dance lessons. With a slogan “Building character on stage and beyond,” SOYT owner and staff explain on the website that they believe in building both the students’ talents and their character: “We love seeing our students grow to be better singers, dancers, actors and performers, but more than anything we want SOYT students to be hard-working, team-oriented and strong members of their community.” For Ireland, opening the studio/theater was the fulfillment of a dream she has had since the age of 15. “I grew up in St Louis, where my sister and I were very involved in youth theater,” she explains. “When we moved here when I was 15, I thought, no problem, I just need to find a youth theater to join, and I’ll make new friends. Well, there were no theatrical outlets specifically for kids, though the San Pedro Playhouse had some classes. So that’s when I decided that this was what I was going to do when I grew up. I’ll go to college and come back to start a youth theater. I was on a mission.”

While in college and afterwards, Ireland took part in as many shows as she could and volunteered for all sorts of duties to learn all aspects of theatrical production. For a while she helped with Steven Stoli’s Backyard Theater (for children), but she also worked at other local thespian houses such as the Cameo, San Pedro Playhouse and the Woodlawn Theater. In fact, she was supposed to choreograph this summer’s production of The King and I at the Playhouse but pulled out to focus on her prospering business. The latter has grown from an acting class held in a church with seven kids to the bustling place it is today, with some 240 youngsters taking part in a variety of programs each semester, including fully staged performances. Four of those are scheduled for the July-August period alone, all performed in SOYT’s own 55-seat facility.

“The shows are a big deal,” says the happy owner. “We want them to have a real theatrical experience. We make sure that the costumes are right for the period, that the sets are appropriate and everything else. The kids love them.”

Though the city now has a number of children’s programs, most are affiliated with existing adult playhouses, notes Ireland, adding that she wanted to create an entirely youth-centered company. Given the population explosion north of 1604, it clearly made sense to establish her business there. Thirteen-year-old Vanessa Ramon loves the atmosphere of the place. “I’ve taken classes in other theaters, but this is much better,” she says. “There was always a lot of competition in the other places, but here it’s like family. They cheer you, and kids from other classes come to see you. And the teachers are like kids themselves.” While Ireland, 28, is personally teaching several classes — including the puppetry session — she has also hired other professional instructors. Nikki Young joined in January to teach acting for the camera, for instance, and Desiree Johnson is coming on board this summer to beef up the dance program. Thanks to Young, they even got comedian Cleto Rodriguez to teach stand-up comedy at the school, which resulted in several youths appearing at the LOL comedy club. There will be another such class in August to be followed again by a Sept. 3 LOL showcase. Young, who has both acted in and produced films and videos, also organizes special panels of industry pros who provide feedback to her students. Thanks to the exposure, several kids have landed agents to represent them, including 10-year-old José Ruiz Gonzalez. Originally encouraged by his mother to sign up for classes to overcome shyness, he now takes his acting seriously. After some prodding he admits, “I do want to be a movie star when I grow up.”

Ramon has also become serious about her career. That’s not unusual, says Ireland. Though some 60 percent of students first join just to have fun, the ones that stay and improve start thinking about a career in the performing arts. As the puppetry class draws to a close, little hands are busily trying to complete their respective creations amidst fabric bits, tools and other puppet-making paraphernalia lying all over the floor. Ten-year-old Julia Martin, who has never made a puppet before, shows me her black butterfly. For Ireland, who is expecting a baby in December, running SOYT is simply the best job in the world. “I am making happen for others what was so important to me as a kid. I love that. And I can bring my baby to work, too!” she says.

Creating a community center

On the other side of town, just a few blocks from the McNay Art Museum, another thespian devotee, Laralee List Wahrmund, opened her “academy for the performing arts” — ambitiously named the Land of Virtuosity — in March 2010. She picked the name as an encouragement “to make children thirst to be the best they can be” and to be virtuosos not only in the theater but in life as well. Needless to say, the acronym LOV was also appealing. Though LOV and SOYT have a lot in common, including their founders’ passion for teaching children, there’s one difference. Wahrmund founded her academy as a nonprofit and at present draws no salary despite being president and CEO. “I wanted LOV to become a community center,” she explains. “This community has no such center. I wanted to create that, a theater/community place where kids — and parents — come because that’s where the social life is. Even now, we are open to community groups for meetings. Children can work on school projects here if they need to use our equipment; they can meet here to discuss projects. I hope it will become the hub for family activities.” The present storefront space may not be able to accommodate all those expectations, but the energetic founder has a reputation for overcoming obstacles. She dreams of buying a large old house in the neighborhood and transforming it into her ideal facility, complete with an actual theatrical auditorium. “We are exploding out of here,” she says, motioning to indicate the small crowded office and the studio behind it. The studio also serves as performance space with about 35 seats. A small room in the back that houses a piano is used for music lessons.

Wahrmund is eminently qualified for what she does. An experienced actress, she also has a track record as a producer for both adult and children’s theater companies. Back in the 1980s, she founded the local group Playroom Players that did everything from melodramas to sketch comedy and later ran a children’s theater in the Los Angeles area. Upon her return to San Antonio, Wahrmund worked for a couple of years as the executive and theatrical director for Musical Bridges Around the World before striking out on her own. She is also the mother of three children, two of whom are involved with the Land of Virtuosity. The oldest, Kris Clinkscales, 29, is a former sharpshooter who earned two Purple Hearts for his bravery in the Iraq war. At present LOV offers group classes in theater and dance and private lessons in piano, violin and guitar, but writing, film and technical theater courses are planned for the near future. Some students are already engaged in writing, however. The final show of the spring semester, Milk Farm Manifesto or The Cow That Jumped Over the Moon, was written by three participants of the Roundtable Writing Class: Izzy Ulm, Katie White and Chandler Wahrmund, the founder’s 16-year-old son. It’s a silly melodrama, but LOV students have also tackled heavy-duty stuff, like Shakespeare. Next school year they’ll do The Tempest.

Besides being fun and teaching children a range of specific skills, performing also builds confidence, she notes, and parents have mentioned seeing their kids grow in the process. “Every child is talented if they want to learn,” she asserts. “I never met a child who couldn’t learn something. I have met children who don’t want to learn. It helps to teach them with love, to get to the place where we can work with his/her talent. I have a child here with dyslexia, another with ADD, with autism, and they are all doing well. It’s about how far you are willing to go to work with them.” When it comes to casting for shows, the director explains to both kids and parents that actors are chosen for roles according to ability and suitability for the part, just as in professional theater. No prima donna behavior is tolerated. About 13 kids of various ages are in the cast of Farm Manifesto the night I show up. The very young need a little whispered help with their lines but all are clearly excited to be on stage. The audience of appreciative relatives laughs and throws popcorn at the villain. But the loudest laughter comes from the back of the room where the director sits, appearing to be as excited as the kids.

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