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For the Children

Photo by Michael Holahan

Kids are exploding out of yellow buses, barely able to contain their excitement. Their teachers do their best to contain the energy, lining them up under the Imperial Theatre marquee. Each group of kids wears a different color shirt—green, yellow, purple, orange, depending on the school. This morning it’s Deer Chase, C.T. Walker, Freedom Park and some others. They file into the lobby, eyes big, then into the theater itself with its golden carvings, rich carpet, red velvet seats.
“Is this a church?” one little boy asks. It’s the only other room he’s ever seen this big and fancy.

“Shhh!” his companion answers, modeling the theater etiquette he’s obviously been taught.

“It’s a theater,” his teacher tells him.

“It’s beautiful!”

He and his classmates walk down a floor that slants and a lady sends them across a row of chairs that open up when you sit on them. There’s a big stage in the front of the room with the biggest curtain he’s ever seen—maybe a thousand feet tall—behind it.

A lady comes out onto the stage. She tells them that this is Beware What You Ask of a Fairy, by Rick Davis. She introduces Mr. Nord, who will play the piano. She says, “When you go back to school we’d like you to write your own play or story, or you can write a poem or draw a picture and your teacher will send it to us.

“Now, you can laugh when something funny happens and you can clap, but please don’t talk while anyone is on stage. That’s the first rule. You see, this is live. If you don’t hear something, you can’t rewind it to hear it again. So you have to pay attention and be quiet so the people around you can listen too. And when you hear a song, listen to the words because they tell you how a person is feeling or what they’re thinking.

“In a minute, the theater will get very dark. Don’t be afraid. It just means something wonderful is about to happen. You’ll see.”

Then the theater gets very black, but a moment later the lights on the stage come on and the big curtain opens and the lady is right. Something wonderful happens.  That something wonderful has been happening for the 26 years Augusta’s Storyland Theatre has been putting on its original plays for children. A lot of children. Since 1989 when Storyland began, some 579,353 kids have attended a Storyland play. Radio personality Austin Rhodes, a regular on the Storyland stage and a board member, likes to say that Storyland plays to more eyeballs than anyone else in the CSRA.

Jim Garvey, a professor emeritus at GRU, retired from his myriad of esteemed duties in 2009. He is enjoying a more leisurely pace but still manages to miss deadlines.

He’s probably right. The buses roll in, six to eight buses per show, for three shows a day for the four-day school run. Then there’s Saturday matinee for families. That’s 13 shows per week. Storyland does this three times a year, a different play in the fall, winter and spring. That’s 39 shows per season, every performance to a virtually full house. Storyland has 24 plays in its repertoire, all of them original, about 15 of them by local playwright and retired GRU professor Rick Davis.

With 13 shows a week, writer, actors and director constantly tweak the show, keeping it fresh, making it better. It’s archived on DVD, so when the show comes around again in five years or so, the cast can decide what to keep and what to change.

After all those shows and all those years, Storyland is a well-oiled machine. House manager Harriet Brantley knows how to move hundreds of kids into and out of the theater with only 20 minutes between shows; Warren Twiggs has all the tech stuff down pat; the stage manager and production crew know just what to do; and the actors move on and off the stage with the joy of performers who know the audience is caught up in everything they see or hear: “No! Look behind you!” the kids warn a character who’s in danger; “Ooooo” (or is it “Ewww”?), when the hero and heroine kiss.

But back in the beginning, when Barbara Lynne Feldman started Storyland, everything was new and untested. All Feldman knew for sure is that kids deserved high- quality live theater and that she was going to make it happen. Sharing the dream were the members of the first board, many of them associated with the Augusta Players: Rick Bracken, Georgia Cunningham, Bill Johnson, Andy Lloyd, Matt Stovall, Steve Walpert  and Peggy Williams. Rick Davis, Karen Britton and Henry Thomas joined them soon after. Lights, sound, costumes, set building, even creation of the children’s scripts they would perform were all tasks to be learned on the job.

Rick Davis learned how to write children’s plays from the kids.  “Kids are a good audience,” Davis says. “They’re an honest audience. They let you know whether you have written a good play for them or not. You get immediate feedback. If they’re bored or distracted, you hear an epidemic of coughing and shuffling feet. But if it’s working, there’s no audience more involved. They see not an actor playing Cinderella, but Cinderella herself.

“You don’t write down to them—you write out at them. A lot of our plays are based on fairytales the kids already know, but you have to create characters to fill the stories out. They laugh at the jokes and they truly worry about the complications. For example, in Rapunzel, she is walking through the woods, really hungry and she finds a sign left by the witch. It says

But Rapunzel is so hungry she misreads the first line. She thinks “do not” is “donut.” That changes the meaning of the whole sign,  she reaches to eat the donut. The kids go crazy. They shout “No, no, no! Don’t eat it! It says DO NOT!” 

And, of course, in all the plays there’s always a lesson to learn (besides read carefully and never confuse “do not” with “donut”): Good triumphs over evil and for every evil deed, there’s a price to pay.

Storyland’s first production was Losin’ It, a play about alcohol and drug awareness. By the time its 16 performances were done, 4,000 high-risk youth had heard the message. By the end of the first season, Storyland’s plays had been seen by 11,458 people.

With the partnership of then-Augusta College’s theater and fine arts programs, Storyland used the Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre as its chief venue for 17 years. Over those years, thanks to grants, ticket sales and fundraisers, Storyland was able to donate $85,000 to the college for theater scholarships. It also sponsored two free concerts by the Augusta Symphony for 1,500 disadvantaged students at the Maxwell Theatre and donated $30,000 to the city of Augusta for assorted cultural programs. For the past nine years Storyland has produced its plays at the Imperial Theatre.

Feldman provides schools with lesson plans and learning objectives based on state standards. Many teachers use the plays as part of their curriculum. They might read the story the play is based on to their classes, then, after they’ve attended the play, have the students compare the play with the story version. Or students might write a review, draw a picture or write a letter. Feldman keeps a file of them. Here’s a letter she received from a third grader after Beware What You Ask of a Fairy:

“Dear Barbara Feldman, You act good. We liked the performance. Have you been in every act? How old are you? Are you married? Will you come to A.B. Merry? Where do you live? Do you practice a lot? I like to act too. Maybe someday I will be as good as you. When I see Beauty and the Beast will you be Beauty? I am sure you would make a good Beauty. I hope to see you again real soon.”

Kids from nine counties still pour into the shows. This past October, 6,090 attended Bilbo and the Magic Ring. Almost 800 of them were from military families. But times are tougher now. Public school budgets have been slashed. Many of the students attend Title 1 schools. Even at just $4 per show, many students can’t afford to come.
“We decided as a board that we’d never turn a child or a school down, we will fill the theater whether they can pay or not,” Feldman says. Storyland now provides 81 percent of its tickets free or at a much-reduced rate. “We’ve offered scholarship tickets from the beginning. If you’re a teacher with kids who can’t afford a ticket, talk to me. No one but the teacher knows which kids are on scholarship.” Almost 4,000 attendees of Bilbo in October were economically disadvantaged and came on discounted or free tickets.

In all the plays there’s always a lesson to learn...good triumphs over evil and for every evil deed, there’s a price
to pay.

Yet even free tickets can’t get students to the plays if the schools can’t afford the buses to transport them. This is the latest hurdle Storyland is facing. “Buses have become so expensive, and discretionary funds to pay for them have been cut so deep, that even if the kids can come for free, the principals say they can’t afford the buses to get them here,” Feldman says. “That’s a big threat to us. We can’t supply the buses and the schools can’t come up with the money.”

If anyone can find a solution it will be Feldman. “Barbara has the determination to keep this thing alive,” says Davis. “She’s a tireless worker, she pays meticulous attention to details, she’s always writing grants, she stays in touch with the schools looking for any way to make it possible for the children to come. She believes in this. She wants children to have this exposure to theater.”

Here’s hoping for lines of yellow buses at the Imperial for the swashbuckling The Courtship of Senorita Florabella in January and Hansel and Gretel in April.

Jim Garvey, a professor emeritus at GRU, retired from his myriad of esteemed duties in 2009. He is enjoying a more leisurely pace but still manages to miss deadlines.

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