By Emily J. Weitz
For 20 years, Helene Leonard has offered the children of the East End the chance to find their voice onstage. I know, because 20 years ago I was a kid who stumbled into her workshop, and she gave me the confidence to step into the spotlight.
“It’s all about making someone feel valid and whole,” said Ms. Leonard in an interview last week. “Some kids come in feeling shy and unliked. To watch the change that comes over someone when they see they have a talent, a worth, is major.”
This confidence then translates into life outside of Stages, and becomes a part of who they are.
“Theater is an equalizer,” said Ms. Leonard. “Everybody is doing their job for the same purpose. It’s a mix of ages geared and focused on the same project. The outcome is the best show possible, so they learn to work together as a unit to create something bigger than themselves. That’s an important lesson.”
It’s important, too, for children to learn humility. My first year with Stages, I got the starring role as Snow White, and it skyrocketed my confidence. The next year, I was Policeman #2 in Pippi Longstocking. Not even Policeman #1. Policeman #2. When I read my part on the cast list, I sat in a corner and hung my head. Helene slid beside me and put her arm around me. She understood.
Stages performances, which often take place at Bay Street Theater, are high caliber theater, and audiences with no connection to the cast often attend. Ms. Leonard thinks it’s almost as big an experience for the kids who just come to watch, to get their early experiences with theater.
“It’s this exchange that only happens that one time in that room between the audience and the performers,” she said.
To share that with their families and be able to laugh together or feel something together is deeply valuable. And it becomes more valuable as we become more connected to our individual electronics and separated from one another.
“The world has changed a lot in 20 years,” said Ms. Leonard. “When we started there were no cell phones. Because of shorter attention spans, I find we really have to grab them and keep them.”
But Stages has changed too. The first few years, some of the productions had 11 or 14 performers. They’ve had casts up to 50 children in recent years, and they’ve seen an ebb and flow, said Ms. Leonard. But she continues to pull out her father’s original scripts from the 60s and 70s, and they continue to resonate with audiences.
“The way my dad decided to present theater to kids,” said Ms. Leonard, “was he kept the bar high and he didn’t talk down to kids.”
Ms. Leonard grew up in her father’s theater in Ohio, and she started directing when she was still in high school. When he passed away at the young age of 52, she decided to take his philosophy into her own work. That’s why Stages is committed to treating its young performers like professionals.
“I wanted to pass on my father’s theory and keep his ideas of children’s theater going,” said Ms. Leonard.
This weekend marks the 20th production of Frankenstein Follies, a Halloween musical that her father began in his theater. When Ms. Leonard moved to the East End, she was working at Hampton Day School and introduced Frankenstein Follies as an assembly.
“In 1994, we started doing it at Bay Street,” she said, “and we’ve done it there every year.”
The performance changes and evolves based on what’s happening in popular culture. The musical accompaniment is live, as it is in all Stages productions. James Benard has been the drummer and back-up band for every single production since the beginning, and Amanda Jones has played the piano for Stages for the past 14 years.
By chance, this 20th anniversary production of Frankenstein Follies also happens to be the 100th Stages production. Alumni from the very first production have been nvited back to join the current cast onstage, and it should be quite a reunion for the Stages family.
“When we started,” said Ms. Leonard, “we imagined we’d have longevity, but 20 years has gone by in a second. It’s been amazing.”
Frankenstein Follies will be performed at Bay Street Theater Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm, with a special alumni performance and party Saturday night at 7:30. Tickets are $15. Go to www.baystreet.org for more information.