If you had told me 20 years ago that community theater would be one of the most fulfilling parts of my future children's lives, I would have laughed you right out of the room. Also, maybe that I would have three children, because who thinks about that when they're 18?
But it's true. Both the children and the theater.
This past weekend marked the ninth year my kids have been a part of the Spoon River Rascals. The whole idea started 14 years ago, the dream of one Paula Helle, who loves music and children and theater and her tiny rural hometown of Ellisville, Ill. Ellisville happens to sport a historic opera house, and Paula wanted to see it put back to use. She also wanted her local young people to know the stage.
So she put together a production involving kids from preschool through junior high. Over the years, they've put on musicals like the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and this year (again), Charlotte's Web. There were so many children involved this year that we needed two plays (Charlotte's Web and E-I-E-I-Oops) and two new directors (thanks, Michelle and Velynna). We're talking almost 40 kids here.
And as someone who was musical but preferred participation in the pit band or the piano in the background, I am in awe of what this has done for my kids. I've watched them learn to fearlessly stand on a stage and not only speak, but sing, to a crowded room. To have stage presence, to know their voice is valuable. To feel they are part of a team and they're needed (which, given their genetic makeup, may be the closest they'll ever get to a team sport).
Back stage, the moms make the costumes and paint the sets and design the programs. We suck various friends into our crazy, enlisting them to build risers for our goose nests, and borrowing the eggs that will become goose eggs. We stay late and sweep up popcorn and we tear down the sets we built. We clean an antique opera house, where actors have signed the back walls for 150 years. And we do it all so our kids can do it, too
Her Rascals experience is almost entirely the reason my 12-year-old can stand in front of a gym full of basketball fans and sing the Star Spangled Banner, without even a twinge of nerves. At 12.
Over the weeks of practices, I've watched older kids mentor younger kids and cheer them on from the wings or from right on the stage. They've made friends for life, high-fiving each other during their bows because they know they all rocked it.
It all reminds me of Charlotte’s line, near the end of her webbed story. Wilbur asks, "Charlotte, why did you do this for me?"
Charlotte answers, "You're my friend, Wilbur. Friendship is a tremendous thing."
This is the beauty of a rural community. And of a cause that's worth it.