Once upon a time, on a tree-lined ridge overlooking Lyndonville, a bunch of kids gathered in a red barn. They moved some hay bales around, scared away some angry starlings, and sang and danced their way into the hearts of the Northeast Kingdom.
Over 20 years later, and with a lot of help from volunteers and benefactors, the curtain is still going up on the Vermont Children’s Theater.
Every young person who auditions gets a role, or at least a place in the chorus line. Co-director John Walker, who has had his own professional acting career, says this is a stage where just about every kid can shine—even if they aren’t talented extroverts.
Homeschoolers love this place.
“The fact that the kids get on stage and learn to speak and have some self-esteem and learn some social dynamic skills, creative problem solving, stuff like that, that’s a lesson plan in and of itself,” Walker noted. “And homeschool parents are always looking for that sort of thing and we do that every summer here, so yeah, we have quite a lot of homeschool parents,” he said.
Children with disabilities are also always welcome and often bloom under the footlights. In Beauty and the Beast, Sadie Chamberlain played a singing teapot. She has a mild form of cerebral palsy, but she finds in Vermont Children’s Theater a warm, supportive family.
“Like, they care, but they don’t care in the sense that they know, but they also know that I am a 12-year-old girl just like everyone else,” Sadie said, after she donned an eye-catching costume.
Older teenagers also get the spotlight. Emma O’Reilly plays the lead in West Side Story. As the starry-eyed Maria in love with a gang member, she’s had to work on her Puerto Rican accent.
“And I say, ‘no not for you, can you keep a secret? Tonight is my wedding night,’” she recited in the green room.
Her crystal clear voice carries the role to the rafters when she sings “I Feel Pretty.”
The 16-year old will perform that show stopper this weekend for the final production of the season.
A petite blonde woman in the lighting booth remembers the first time she was about that age, and walked into this barn. Teddy De George now has children of her own in the theater troupe, but she can remember when she was only 17, and auditioned for a part in Barnum, a musical about the legendary circus man.
“And it was very magical because Barnum is a very magical show. And as we were rehearsing they were building the theater around us and we’d come in and all of a sudden there would be theater chairs, and there was a floor ... First there were just beams and then there was a stage and we were learning the song “One Brick At A Time,” and it was like 'one brick at a time, one single solitary brick.' And we were thinking, 'one board at a time.' That was how the theater was built, one board at a time,” De George recalled.
Glowing red in the setting sun, it’s still standing tall in the middle of a pasture, fueled by kid energy, volunteer muscle, and local generosity.
Vermont Children’s Theater presents the final weekend of West Side Story Friday, July 25 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, July 26 at 2 and 7 p.m.