Faith Conaway lifted her arms toward the ceiling like an angel with elegant, but invisible, wings. In front of her, 10 fledgling actors swooped their arms up in reply.
It was the Sunday after Christmas. Lights and decorations still festooned the walls of the Casper Children’s Theatre, a suite of rooms and a black box theater tucked inside an almost vacant, indoor strip mall that also houses a small Mexican grocery and a fitness center.
Kids careened across the stage in socks and T-shirts, despite the chill. The adolescent actors laughed and danced through the main number of their production, a pop-musical parody of the 1980 film “Xanadu.”
In a few weeks, the troupe will take the comical, high-energy show to the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta and compete against other theater groups, most from middle schools.
But the children’s theater isn’t part of the Natrona County School District. It’s a nonprofit that offers classes and workshops to kids ages 4 to 18.
“We take who comes; we cast within what we have,” said director Jordan Nelson.
The theater started 22 years ago. It was initially run by two women and affiliated with the Casper Recreation Center, she said. It grew over the years and moved out of the rec center.
This is the eighth year the children’s theater has been invited to compete at the national festival.
For the first few years, the competition was a small gathering in a small venue. But now hundreds of schools are represented, including some from outside the U.S.
The different schools are grouped into pods and compete within their pod, Nelson said. A few pod-winners are asked to perform at the end of the festival.
Accustomed to performing with the troupe, many of the Casper kids were unruffled by the upcoming competition. But the pressure was on to get the show ready in time. The kids hadn’t performed the choreographed show in weeks. Gaps in the dance routines revealed absent actors, still away for the holidays.
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The biggest challenge with the group wasn’t getting them to learn lines and dance routines but getting them to understand that “Xanadu” is a comedy, said Conaway, the musical instructor for the theater. Most of the kids were born decades after the Olivia Newton-John romantic comedy came out. The music was foreign to them and the parody even more so, she said.
“They were all very standoffish (at first),” Nelson said. “They were taking it so seriously.”
The cheesy, heavy-handed production, poking fun at love stories, went over their heads. But the coaches persevered and the kids caught on, hamming it up for the big numbers and placing hands on hearts in supplication.
Nelson told the kids to speed it up. They needed to move through all the numbers before their three-hour rehearsal came to a close.
Andrew Brown’s gentle tenor rose and held on to a high note. The jangle from someone’s iPod drained away, and the kids arranged themselves into a circle midstage for a post-rehearsal wrap-up.
Nelson reminded them to watch arm movements. The judges in Atlanta always notice their gestures, she said.
Tess Bjorksten, the star of the show, reminded everyone that at least they always get praised for good diction.
“What is 'Xanadu?'” Nelson asked. Silence and muttering.
“So do you think (the judges) might ask you?” she added.
“It’s the freedom to love whoever you want,” said Skyleigh Armstrong, to general approval.