Arts & EntertainmentSong & Stage

Stages Celebrates 20 Years of Performing Arts

Give most children a bunch of blocks and they’ll build a house. Your kid builds a proscenium thrust with raked seating. Everything is a production with this kid. Mealtime, bedtime, it’s all showtime, complete with holding for applause.

You have a theater child. Embrace your little Jennifer Lawrence, or future Josh Hutcherson and take them to Stages.

Helene Leonard is the director and cofounder of Stages: A Children’s Theatre Workshop, Inc. running theater programs twice a year for kids 8 to 18, and also the very popular SummerStages Musical Theatre Camp, which will be celebrating its 20th birthday this summer.

Right now, Leonard has her hands full getting ready for the opening night of Once Upon a Mattress, Stages’ spring production at Bay Street Theater performed May 10 and May 11. For the cast of 30 young local actors, the performance marks the culmination of weeks of work, as they tread the boards, putting their own stamp on Mattress, an extremely funny retelling of the classic fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” “Mattress” made a star of Carol Burnett in the original 1959 production, and showcased Sarah Jessica Parker in the 1990s revival. Honoring Mother’s Day, “every mom who comes to the May 11 performance will get a crown, because they’re queen for the day!” Leonard promises.

Leonard has no doubt that the young stars of the current Stages production may have every bit as bright a future as their Mattress predecessors “There are so many talented kids out here,” Leonard said, looking back over 20 years of Stages. Mattress will be Stages 97th production, but Leonard’s enthusiasm for the program and her young performers shows no sign of flagging. “We started with 14 kids,” she recalls. “We’ve had up to 50, but generally we work with about 25 to 30.”

Leonard is a former theater kid, herself. “My dad had a successful theater program in Ohio and ran four different programs in four different theaters. We would work with him. My mother made costumes.” When Leonard moved out to the East End with her husband, Gene Stilwell, who shares her love of theater, “We saw a need for this in the community. Now, there are a lot of creative activities. We were definitely one of the first.”

For those who missed the current round of Stages, SummerStages is just around the corner. SummerStages Musical Theatre Camp will be celebrating 20 years of giving 8- to 18-year-olds a voice and a venue. The camp runs for four weeks, Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Leonard’s young performers put on a musical production. There are two sessions, one in July, the other in August. SummerStages campers are immersed not only in rehearsal, but they also work on their singing, dancing and performance skills.

The program is extremely successful, and not just with the local crowd. “We get kids from Florida, Connecticut, of course kids who come up from the city for the season.”

Leonard has added this summer a Creative Drama Camp for 7- to 11-year-olds. The two-week programs are just the right duration for younger kids, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., leaving summer afternoons free for family time or beach time. Leonard is excited to see how the summer unfolds for the new program and her younger performers.

Through the years, she has watched kids growing up through Stages. After 20 years, there is a lot to look back on with satisfaction. The 8-year-old of a decade ago grows into an accomplished 18-year-old planning her next step in life. Leonard has even seen some of her kids continue on after graduating from Stages to pursue professional careers. “It’s fun watching them grow. You see many of the same kids come back every year. We’re a family.”

Tickets for Once Upon a Mattress can be purchased at the Bay Street Theater box office. Call 631-725-9500. For more information about Stages and SummerStages, visit stagesworkshop.org, email info@stagesworkshop.org or phone 631-329-1420.

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