Casper Children’s Theatre actors trekked backstage in the Kelly Walsh High School auditorium during Friday’s dress rehearsal to see furniture they’d use when their play opened the following night. For the first time, they saw a table, tea cart and sofa instead of big cardboard boxes.

The show’s co-director, Dominque Simmons, asked the students to take a look around at set pieces, props and the stage. They would be in the same relative spots they had been when the group rehearsed in the YMCA, she told them.

Then they’d run through the play “The Gift of the Magi,” step by step.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Simmons said as dress rehearsal began.

“If anybody can handle it,” she added, “it’s this crew.”

The Casper Children’s Theatre’s current production — a free, child-friendly 40-minute show — opened Saturday and continues this week.

The theater has undergone changes in the past year and a half, including a move from its longtime home downtown in August 2017.

Executive director and teacher Jordan Nelson in August departed after 10 years with the theater. Board members and other volunteers have continued the theater with activities including workshops and the holiday play.

“We don’t want to see it go away,” Casper Children’s Theatre board president Jessi Waring said. “It’s such a wonderful thing to offer to our kids in the community. It’s more than just theater; it’s about their life skills and working as a team and what it takes to put things on.”

Changing and adapting

With the change in leadership, community members, board members and parents stepped up to run the nonprofit theater, which began in 1993 with a mission to “teach life skills through theater skills.”

Among the community members involved are CY Middle School language arts teachers Simmons and Audrey Egan, who both run a theater program at CY Middle School and offered to direct the holiday show low on budget but high in quality, Waring said.

Other professionals offered workshops last fall in topics including dance, stage makeup and auditioning, said Waring, whose two daughters participate in the theater.

“We didn’t want this to disappear off everyone’s radar,” Waring said. “So we’ve been really creative, but it’s worked out really well.”

The nonprofit plans to advertise soon for a part-time program coordinator with duties like managing volunteers, finding performance spaces and some marketing, Waring said.

Long-term goals include eventually hiring an executive director and for the theater to own its own facility — though that’s not financially an option now, Waring said.

With so much theater talent and expertise in the community, she said, the organizers plan to continue tapping volunteer expertise for short-term projects like workshops or directing shows.

The nonprofit theater began at the Casper Recreation Center and grew to offer preschool through teen classes, most culminating in public performances.

The nonprofit theater has struggled financially amid diminishing grants and donations as funding sources have decreased. But recent grants have helped sustain the theater this season, one from the Wyoming Arts Council and one from the Wyoming Community Foundation, which allowed for governance and strategic planning for the board, Waring said.

In August 2017, the theater moved from its home of 16 years in the Commissary Mall downtown because the building was up for sale and the theater, with rising enrollment, had outgrown the space, Nelson said in 2017. The move was also considered a way to save money.

The NERD YMCA of Natrona County since then has provided space in its old building at an affordable cost, Waring said.

The theater has put on shows at various venues, including the Casper Boys and Girls Club of Central Wyoming and the Casper Elks Lodge. Kelly Walsh High School provided the space for “The Gift of the Magi” production.

The theater organizers aim to keep the theater vibrant with the holiday show and reinvigorate community excitement and support for the theater, Waring said.

Upcoming plans include more workshops in the spring with professionals, including one on writing plays and one on improvisational acting with Casper Children’s Theatre co-founder Renee Naquin, who also taught a workshop last fall. Auditions will be held Jan. 26 for the next show, “The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet,” for ages 8 and older.

“I think that as we continue to keep this momentum going,” Waring said, “I just see really amazing things for the theater in the future.”

Gifts of theater

The dress rehearsal run opened with a song by young carolers, before Della, played by 13-year-old Bianca Rueter, appeared on stage and showed a Christmas tree to her husband, Jim, played by 11-year-old Lucas Spaulding. The show portrays a poor couple who ends up sacrificing for the other’s happiness during the Christmas season.

“Is it not the most wonderful and indeed the most delightful tree of any Christmas anywhere?” she asked as he doubtfully eyes the tree and then knocks it over. But the couple laughs and agrees they’re happy as he uprights the tree.

Egan gave acting pointers after rehearsal, including reminding Lucas to take off his gloves and scarf as his character arrives home and to put the ornaments back on the tree instead of in his pockets.

“Take the time to do it,” Egan said. “Be in that moment.”

Simmons gave the students homework to visualize the set pieces, scene changes and entrances and exits, and she encouraged them to then go to bed for a good night’s sleep before the next day’s opening. The microphones, a different stage and real set pieces and costumes seemed to distract them from great acting they’d already shown in previous rehearsals, she said.

“I want the last thing that you are thinking about tonight before you go to bed be what scene changes you have, what are your lines, what side of the stage you entered from,” she said.

Egan and Simmons, language art teachers at CY Middle School, bring backgrounds in theater and teaching to the children’s theater.

Egan grew up in theater, earned a bachelor’s degree in theater while in college and has performed on local stages including Stage III Community Theatre.

Simmons performed at Casper College on a theater scholarship, worked her way through University of Northern Colorado as a professional actor, taught at the Casper Children’s Theatre and performed in Colorado for a few years before returning to Wyoming to teach at CY, she said.

Theater teaches important skills and offers learning experiences that that can’t necessarily be recreated in the classroom, Simmons said.

“Being able to have critical thinking skills and problem solving and all of those things are involved in children’s theatre,” Simmons said. “And so that logic of my educator’s mind is like, ‘This is something that I have to do; we have to provide this.”

Theater offers many kids a place to belong, thrive and learn, Egan said.

“I think it’s a really great way to keep kids involved in the things that make us human,” she said, “because theater does so much work with the human aspect of things — the way humans see things, the way they react to things, the way they feel things. And so I think kids that do theater tend to be a bit more empathetic, and if there’s one thing I think our world could use right now it’s more empathy.”

Growing in theater

Many parents are invested in the theater, including Shawn Galles, who’s helped with things like the move to the YMCA and supplying Christmas trees for a play last winter.

“There’s still a lot of interest obviously in keeping this alive,” Galles said, “and there were lots of different people from all parts and walks that contribute to keeping this alive.”

Galles’ daughter Mallory, 10, has participated in the theater since she was about 5 years old and portrays a narrator in the current show. Her older siblings also have participated.

Mallory and other theater participants have helped, too, including last winter bussing tables in exchange for performance space.

The theater has always been Mallory’s favorite activity, and it’s brought her out of her shell, her mother said. Mallory agreed she’s more social at practices and has made a lot of friends.

“I’m just more talkative to people I’m maybe not used to or don’t know,” Mallory said. In this show, she has one line, but she has to pay careful attention to when to go on and to scene changes, when she works with other students to move set furniture and props on and off stage.

Many parents find benefits for their kids in the theater: building relationships, confidence and public speaking skills; learning to work with others and about literature and culture; and keeping them out of potential trouble. For some, it’s a chance for an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have. Some have discovered a passion.

“We’ve lost so much ability to speak publicly because of technology that to have kids get on stage and be comfortable in front of groups of people is really a good thing,” said parent Scott Harris, who has a stepson in the show and two others who continued in theater after they aged out of the children’s theater. “And I can tell you with all three boys being involved in theater and my wife being involved in theater, it becomes a little family while they’re doing it and those are really good relationships to have. It’s a really good confidence builder and probably exposes them to stories that they may not otherwise see.”

Rueter, who portrays Della in the production, said she’d be heartbroken if the theater went away. Many kids need the creative outlet. For her, it’s been a chance to have fun and learn, she said.

“I love to just perform in front of people, and it’s brought me out of my shell so much,” she said. “And I couldn’t be more thankful for that because I don’t know where I would be.”

When she started theater there in second grade, she was nervous to act or sing in front of others, she said. But now, she loves leading roles and musical solos. Her stage experience has played a big part in her becoming more willing to try new things and meet new people outside of theater, which helped her adjust to middle school much more easily, she said.

Reuter portrayed the title role in “Alice in Wonderland” at the former children’s theater home and rehearsed for her role of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” last summer in the YMCA before performing at the Boys and Girls Club.

“I think it all works, because acting is acting no matter where you move,” she said. “But the people who are involved are all very helpful and supportive, so it’s all been really good.”

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