Home Performing arts Business of the Week: Children’s Theater of Central Wisconsin

Business of the Week: Children’s Theater of Central Wisconsin


Wausau Driver and Review

Editor’s note: Business of the week is a sponsored feature that shares the stories of locally owned and operated businesses in the Wausau area, highlighting the products and services they offer and how they contribute to the unique flavor of the metro area. Learn how to pitch your business by emailing [email protected]

The featured activity in Wausau this week is the Central Wisconsin Children’s Theater, an organization that was formed in the late 1970s when two groups, Wausau Children’s Theater and The Merry Pipers, merged. Since then, CWCT has been the only organization in the region to offer theater created for and produced by children. Over the years, hundreds of shows have been produced by thousands of children for the enjoyment of a diverse audience, with performances held on various stages, including the Center for Civic Engagement at Stevens Point University -Wausau. The group produces five stage shows each year as well as two theater camps held during the summer months, all of which aim to inspire and empower local children. Each year, a show is produced as part of Project Penguin, a program that pairs children with special needs with peer mentors to create a musical, generating an incredible experience for everyone involved. Children’s theater isn’t just fun to watch – experts say participation can foster increased self-confidence, improved communication skills and stronger self-expression in children, fostering teamwork and the ability to meet the toughest challenges. Justin Evans, who has served as executive director of CWCT since 2018, is currently serving as director of the group’s upcoming production, “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Jr.” Evans credits the CWCT’s success to its many volunteers, a group made up of parents, members of the local arts community and others who are simply looking for ways to give back and get involved.

“Everyone from the director, to the makeup team, to the cast, is there as a volunteer,” Evans said. “With our current production, most production teams are made up of people who have been involved in acting but never in a directing role. Kristina Geisler and Robyn Tanger took over the vocal direction and choreography for the show and together they do as good a job as I’ve seen. We also have an assistant director, Megan Girard, who is new to the area and has been a godsend in keeping me focused and organized during this production.

Here, Evans shares some insight into the CWCT and its mission, as well as the many ways theater enriches the lives of local children.

What gives you the most joy in children’s theater?

The greatest joys I get from my involvement with the CWCT are seeing a child step out of their comfort zone for the first time and do something they didn’t think they were capable of; the look of accomplishment they have on their faces during the opening night curtain call; and every time a parent comes up to me and says they can’t believe how much more confidence their child has because of being on a show.

What are the age groups of the children concerned? Who is the youngest actor you have worked with?

Most of our productions involve children between the ages of 6 and 18. However, we try to have at least one show per season that features adults. We have found that young performers tend to learn a lot by working with local theater veterans. The youngest actor I worked with would have been 5 years old.

How do you recruit kids to perform?

Our biggest recruiting tool we have is our productions themselves. We get the most requests on how to get involved in the first few days after a production. We also offer summer theater camps where kids new to theater can find out what it’s all about.

How do you choose the programs you do?

We have a play selection committee that meets around the beginning of the year to decide what the next season’s productions will be. They’re looking at what new shows are available, what productions haven’t been made in the area recently, and we’ve also started to look at what kind of social impact a show can have – for example, the theme of a show relates goes some way to things that impact young people or families today.

How often do children repeat? How long does it take to go from the start of a production to the final product?

Our rehearsal period can last from 6 to 10 weeks depending on the size of the show. In one case, our rehearsal period lasted 12 weeks. During this time, we usually hold rehearsals from 6-8pm Monday-Thursday. Once we get closer to the performance, we also hold Friday rehearsals.

Do you have a favorite production that you were part of?

This is a difficult question. I have been fortunate to be part of some very big productions on and off stage over the past 28 years. Narrowing it down to a global “favorite” is nearly impossible. As an actor, my favorite role would have to be emcee in a 2001 UWMC production of “Cabaret.” As a director, that would be our 2018 production of “Newsies.” Either way, the result final was better than I had imagined at the start of production.

What are the biggest challenges in children’s theatre?

The biggest challenges CWCT has faced since I took over as Executive Director in 2018 (well, outside of the pandemic) are the same challenges we’ve faced for the past 40+ years. Fundraising and volunteer engagement are the most important. As a salaried employee, it is always a challenge for me to find volunteers to help with larger projects that happen when there is no production. However, we have a few really dedicated volunteers who seem to show up to help us with anything we need. Our organization would not have lasted this long without them.

Tell us about The Penguin Project.

The Penguin Project is a program that pairs children between the ages of 10 and 21 with neurological disorders such as Down syndrome, autism or cerebral palsy with peer mentors who do not have neurological disorders and together they are producing a musical. Participation in the program improves social interaction, strengthens communication skills and builds self-confidence. It also gives children the opportunity to form lasting relationships, as the theater fosters a sense of friendship and family for everyone involved. It is the first program of its kind in Wisconsin.

What about stage fright? How do you encourage children to overcome their fear of being on stage?

As with most things in life, the more you can help someone prepare for what they are about to experience, the more comfortable they will feel. During the rehearsal process, we try to make sure they understand the importance of knowing their lines, their choreography and their music. Plus, we have four nights on the stage we’re playing on before opening night, which also goes a long way to allaying any major fears they might have. We also try to point out that having nerves is a good thing and just means they care about the job they’re going to do.

How do you see children’s theater as it translates into real-world skills for the children involved?

Children who are involved in drama have shown better academic results than those who are not involved in drama. They were also found to be more civic-minded, making them more likely to volunteer within their communities. But I think the most important thing that sets “theater kids” apart from other kids is their ability to empathize. As an actor, you always strive to connect with the character you play, to find a common thread between him and you. With all the divisions and fights going on today, empathy is something this world could use a lot more.

Settle this for me. Theater or theatre?

The theater is the physical building or stage. Theater is the general idea of ​​performing arts. So, in other words, “We’re going to the local theater tonight,” versus “My kid has been doing theater since he was ten.” At least, that’s how it was explained to me a long time ago.

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