In an age when children are bombarded with cartoons, and movies and shows on all types of electronic devices, Chadron State College Theatre Professor Roger Mays believes it is important to expose young people to the magic of watching a story told by living, breathing actors on a stage in front of their eyes.
Since Mays arrived at CSC nearly two decades ago, that conviction has given many children in northwest Nebraska the opportunity to experience a live theatre production, while at the same time allowing CSC students to hone their talents in a variety of theatrical skills.
“Every year we attempt to do a play that is suitable for a young audience,” Mays said. “It could be third grade or eighth grade or perhaps young teens. Students in those grades and in small towns don’t get a chance for live theatre very often. I think it’s important for us to fill that niche.”
For one of the four productions that the CSC theatre department stages each year, Mays selects a work that he thinks is appropriate for young people, but he said finding works that fit a wide range of age groups can be tricky.
“We want high school students to come and we want younger students to come. It’s very difficult to find one title that everyone agrees is suitable,” he said.
However the Broadway success of Walt Disney productions such as “The Lion King” shows that a good story can captivate audiences of all ages, said Mays.
“It’s something adults can share watching with their children. It’s a fine line where the kids like it and the grownups like it too,” he said.
While familiar titles such as “Treasure Island,” “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Charlie Brown” are among the children’s plays Mays has directed over the years, CSC students have gotten hands-on experience in creating some of the other productions. Portions of Shakespeare’s plays were adapted for “No Holds Bard,” students wrote and staged their own versions of folk tales from around the world for “World by the Tale” and the 2010 production “Ounce, Dice, Trice” was an original adaptation of a highly praised children’s book about counting systems.
The children’s theatre shows, like the other CSC productions, are usually performed on the stage at Memorial Hall, but that changes every third year when Mays teaches a class called Children’s Theatre Workshop and takes the children’s show on the road to six schools in the northern Panhandle.
“We pull up with a truck. We’ve got set, costumes, lights, everything, and it’s free to the schools,” he said. “Taking students out to productions is becoming increasingly difficult. It makes sense that we bring it to them.”
The touring show is performed at two different schools each day, which gives CSC theatre students a feeling for the itinerant life that most theatrical companies led in the past, said Mays. “You put a lot of energy into your performance and the moment you are done, that’s great, let’s take this thing apart and throw it in the truck. We’ve got another place to be,” he said. “To experience that is absolutely invaluable.”
To make the traveling shows even more meaningful for young audience members, Mays has class members create puzzles, games, and background information relating to the production, which are included in study guides provided to the schools before the show arrives.
Financial support from the Chadron Public Library Foundation has been an important part of the effort to bring children’s theatre productions to northern Panhandle students, according to Mays. The Foundation had been underwriting an annual children’s theatre performance by the Nebraska Theatre Caravan and called for help about 15 years ago when the company ended its Panhandle tours, said Mays. Almost every year since then the Foundation has sponsored a free performance at M-Hall for Dawes County elementary students.
“They help us subsidize the play and we give them recognition in the program and at the show,” he said.
Though the idea of children’s theatre may bring to mind simple, cartoon-like characters and shows, it’s wrong to assume that plays for children can’t address serious themes, according to Mays, who points to “The Arkansaw Bear,” the first children’s show he directed at CSC, as an example. The play uses a character called The World’s Greatest Dancing Bear to address a young girl’s feelings of loss when she learns that her grandfather is dying.
“We underestimate kids. They have the same concerns you and I do. They just need to be told about them in a different way,” Mays said. “That’s what theatre can do. Tell a story that makes them see they are not alone, that other people have these problems too.”