The week before opening night, the cast members of the Owings Mills JCC’s “The Wizard of Oz” transformed a small rehearsal space first into the cornfields of Kansas, then swirled it into the opulence of Oz, just by the sheer force of their song and dance. One can only imagine the magic in store when set to the backdrop of sets, lights and the Gordon Center stage.
The annual spring musical, featuring first- through eighth-graders, is this year’s culmination to the brand new (and bursting at the seams) theater arts program that includes the Habonim arts camp — doubling in size from 70 participants last year to 140 this summer — and the after-school Culture Club curriculum, all offered through the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.
The staff was shocked when 70 kids showed up for the audition, said Randi Benesch, JCC managing director of arts and culture.
“We’re obviously filling a need in this community, and we’re going to grow this program,” she added. “It’s so exciting, we’ve always had great performances for people to see, but this is the first program our kids can be part of and not only perform, but they’re really learning a lot of skills in the process.”
For instance, CJay Philip, new director of Children’s Theater at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, said a concept they’re working on in rehearsals is “look, listen, learn.”
“In theater, 85 percent of the information you’re going to receive is by looking and listening,” she explained during a “circle-up” time, in which they discussed actions and values and how those affect working together as a group. “Only 15 percent is by talking.”
The concept has really sunk in for the kids, she said. They realize if they stop and listen during directions
instead of interrupting to ask a question, the process is more productive, satisfying and fun for everyone.
This is the first show Philip has directed and choreographed for the JCC program, and though she’s been a consultant to arts and educational programs for more than 15 years, she said it’s been exciting to “start a theater program fresh, planning with longevity and sustainability and bringing families together.” She credits the support she receives from Benesch and Melissa Berman, director of arts and culture education.
But Philip, who is also a teaching artist at Center Stage and an award-winning actress, singer, songwriter and choreographer with a host of serious Broadway productions on her resume, understands the deeper lessons of theater aren’t only about being on stage, and she weaves that into the program.
“It’s also learning about what it means to be a theater community, the relationships to one another and the confidence” that comes along with the rehearsing and performance, she said. The young cast talks a lot about respect and generosity and are aware enough to point it out in others when they see it.
The JCC theater program is designed primarily for third- through eighth-graders, but there was
so much interest from first- and second-graders that there will be a Story Time Theater, where the little ones act out fables and folk tales while stories are read aloud by older children.
Since they didn’t realize the overwhelming response they’d get for this show, the staff worked to include as many of the younger children as possible. Some will be in the chorus ensemble or in the specially created junior design team that works on props and costumes and other “jobs that work well with little hands,” such as adding flowers to sets and sparkles on costumes, and, said Philip, “their names will be in the program and they’ll have a little bow” after the performance. “It helps them see there are many parts of being in a show.”
The kids are having a blast, but the parents are also getting into it.
“At the JCC we have families for the swim team — sports league families — but now the arts and culture department is growing this community within a community,” said Benesch. “Everyone’s having a positive experience, and they’re impressed with the quality of the program.”
“We’ve incorporated Jewish values throughout the theater program,” she added. “Each week, there is a value of the week, like chesed, being kind, or kavod, respect.” All kids are welcome to participate in the theater program, she said, but “whether they are Jewish or not, these are values all kids should have.”