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TRYPS and PACE: Behind the scenes with children’s theater companies

TRYPS and PACE: Behind the scenes with children’s theater companies

Daisy Crane, Alexis Barnes and Megan Kelly in Tryps’ Robin Hood
Daisy Crane, Alexis Barnes and Megan Kelly in Tryps’ Robin Hood
Could Columbia become a pipeline through which local child actors make their way to Hollywood or Broadway?
The answer is yes if Jill Womack, artistic director of Theater Reaching Young People and Schools, and her talented coterie of theater professionals and eager students have anything to say about it. Already, she has organized a weeklong program called “Camp Disney,” where 40 students will have the opportunity to work with television actor John D’Aquino and talent manager Linda Henrie to learn more about audition preparation, improvisation techniques and scene rehearsal.
Columbia has not one, but two children’s theater companies — an impressive feat for a town of fewer than 100,000 people. Each year, Performing Arts in Children’s Education and TRYPS serve several hundred students from in and around Columbia through a variety of productions and classes.
Although both organizations make it their mission to teach young people about the art of theater, each has a distinguishing approach that allows it to serve a special niche within the greater Columbia community.
“In terms of style, I don’t see them as competitors,” said Stefan Melnyk, a recent graduate of Columbia Independent School who has participated in both PACE and TRYPS productions. “They work in different styles. Jill [Womack] will put her own signature touch on the script, while PACE is more direct. Also, TRYPS manages to instill a great deal of fun. It’s great for kids when above all the aim is to have fun. PACE is good preparation for pursuing theater in college.”
Another difference between the two companies is that Womack occasionally uses professional adult actors in performances alongside her child actors, while PACE distinguishes itself by peopling its cast and crew entirely with children.
“I love that dynamic,” Womack said. “The way you create something with a core of professionals.”
Joy from the stage
At TRYPS, audience and participant enjoyment drives each performance. To that end, Womack doesn’t hesitate to use directorial prerogative when interpreting scripts, which means that TRYPS shows tend to reflect her rollicking sense of humor and desire to keep the audience engaged.
“It’s true Jill brings the funny,” TRYPS choreographer Tammy Walker said. “She adds such fun things. For instance, in Aladdin, she had one character come out to “Thriller” dressed like Michael Jackson. That’s not in the script, but the school kids were out of their chairs! The script is just the jumping-off point. We want kids to feel safe to explore.”
The TRYPS office and studio, located in the Columbia Mall, is truly a youngster’s haven, colorfully decorated with sets from past productions: Cinderella’s pink carriage, a giant clock from Scrooge, castles, rainbows. When Walker takes me on the tour, kindergarten-aged children are rehearsing Annie, their voices gleeful as they sing. Even children as young as 10 months can join in the fun through the Tiny TRYPSters program.
But there is a serious side to TRYPS as well; Womack brings a wealth of acting and teaching experience to her position, and though she is committed to creating an environment that is both fun and inclusive, she also dedicates much time to training talented and hungry students in the ways of show business. One promising student, Troy Guthrie, recently moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he will start 10th grade and pursue an acting career. 
Lauren Young, Rose Brendal and Colleen Cutts in PACE’S The Wizard of Oz
Lauren Young, Rose Brendal and Colleen Cutts in PACE’S The Wizard of Oz
Pursuing professionalism
PACE takes a more traditional approach to theater and offers children the opportunity to act in full-length performances that adhere closely to the classic scripts chosen by Artistic Director Angela Howard. For the 2010-11 season, PACE students will perform Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan and Bridge to Terabithia.
All PACE performances take place in the historic Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, a fitting venue for an organization that prides itself on preparing students for the scope and scale of the theater world.
This means that PACE also takes the audition process seriously. Not all students receive a role in the production simply by the act of auditioning; they must earn it, a process that introduces students to the rigors, excitement and sometimes disappointment of auditioning.
In the spring, PACE students staged a nearly three-hour-long production of The Sound of Music, an accomplishment that was hugely satisfying for everyone involved.
The Sound of Music deals with serious themes,” Executive Director Megan White said. “We really give kids the chance to sink their teeth into big roles.”
Melnyk, who is headed to New York University in the fall, concurred. “I like the roles I’ve been getting lately. Since I’m an older actor, they give me a fair amount of free rein. PACE is very professional. They’re good at making the end production the best it can be.”
White, Howard and their fellow PACE professionals expect a lot from their young charges, which in turn yields standout performances from the actors, impressive leadership from crew members and fosters in participants a strong sense of ownership and pride.
“We’re looking for actors who behave professionally and are nice to work with,” White said. “At rehearsal last night, I told the students that the difference between a good show and a great show is commitment. You’re either there 100 percent or you’re not.”
A common passion
Both TRYPS and PACE make a point of giving back to the community in creative ways. PACE participates in the innovative Art in Health Care series run by University of Missouri Health Care. For the series, Howard commissions plays that deal with health challenges such as deafness and autism to raise awareness.
“With Window Pains, a play about autism written by Hartley Wright, we were able to perform select scenes for the State Legislature,” White said. “Legislation was passed disallowing health care discrimination against autistic kids.”          
True to its name, TRYPS reaches out to area schools to identify how upcoming performances might tie into curriculum and provides free teachers’ tickets to weekday performances and reduced student tickets.
Ultimately, what continues to draw young actors back to both TRYPS and PACE is the joy of live performance — that and the chance to be part of a community of passionate young artists and teachers.
“The people are a blast,” said Katherine Gardner, a high school sophomore who most recently played Jasmine in TRYPS’ Aladdin. “The kids are fantastic.”

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