StageOne Family Theatre, Louisville’s premier children’s theater, has been entertaining young audiences for 75 years.
“It’s exciting to work for a company that specifically, at its heart, serves young people and the communities around them,” says Lina Chambers, education director at StageOne Family Theatre.
Through the last few years, there has been a lot of change within StageOne. With pandemic-related shutdowns, StageOne leaders, like everyone else, had to determine next steps. Andrew Harris, producing artistic director for StageOne, was committed to continuing to reach audiences because, as he says, “theater belongs to everyone, everywhere.”
As such, they developed a more expansive lens through which to view performances. Rather than producing live theater, which was not an option for a period of time, they figured out a way to beam themselves into classrooms from home.
“The pandemic forced us to shift from putting on strong, professional work for young audiences here, locally, to having this magical opportunity to put our theater in a digital context and look at the tools we have to reach our audiences in new and different ways,” Chambers says.
StageOne typically puts on four main stage productions each year at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. This year they featured “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly” and “Dragons Love Tacos.” “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly” was about to open when COVID-19 cases spiked, so they filmed it and worked with the local school corporation to get the production into every Jefferson County Public Schools elementary classroom for students to see. They also built educational materials around it, because one of StageOne’s main focuses is on educating young people, from elementary through high school. For younger grades, that might include a team coming out to perform a book for students, whereas for high schools it may involve a teacher calling Chambers and requesting a service based on the school’s budget.
“Wherever the call is, we’ll respond – we’re like ‘Theater Batman,’” Chambers says with a chuckle. “There has been a large appetite for having guest artists and teaching artists come into the schools.”
The teaching artists are professional working actors. They are talented at their craft and also have the ability to teach and engage with young people in classrooms.
“When I hire teaching artists, I want them to have confidence in their artistry but also to value and respect young people,” Chambers says.
StageOne does public storyteller programs. For instance, they have big public storytelling performances for which they partner with Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School. They also collaborate with the Louisville Orchestra and the Kentucky Science Center.
“We’ll often have our stories speak to the themes in the spaces we are in,” Chambers says.
They also partner with the library system to perform stories at libraries throughout the city.
“It’s mostly about the actors reading and acting out what’s happening within the book, and then finding places where the young people in the audience can build the environment around it,” Chambers says. “For instance, if they’re reading ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ the performers would invite the audience to show their terrible teeth to create the forest of trees. It’s a more exciting way to read stories.”
They intersperse big shows with smaller, community-engaged performances and interactions.
“We’re always trying to stick our fingers into whatever pies we are able to,” Chambers says. “What’s great is that there are so many art makers and opportunities throughout the city. We are always in each other’s inboxes asking, ‘Are you doing this thing?’ It’s very collaborative.”
Before Chambers joined the staff at StageOne, she worked for a regional theater in Chicago that catered to adults. She got frustrated in that space because she had come from a community and a master’s program engaged with making art specifically for young audiences.
“I didn’t know how much I’d miss that space,” Chambers says. “Being back in a [theater for young adults] space has been so exciting.”
She notes that when they look out at the audience of young people for a main stage play, they are not only seeing people who want to tell stories up on stage, but also the spectrum of young people who are going to tell stories in a variety of ways. Chambers recently finished running a four-day workshop with a group of diffident high schoolers. Though she wasn’t welcomed with open arms initially (remember, these are teenagers), as time went on, Chambers got them to engage.
“My goal was to, on the fourth day, get the students to stand up and perform in front of the whole group to share a one-minute story of what home was to them,” Chambers says. “There’s always a moment in rehearsals in an educational setting where you give the instructions and think, ‘This is about to fail,’ but every single person spoke.”
By the end, many students asked Chambers if she was coming back. It’s proof that there was a hunger that they might not have known they had. Now, thanks to this educational theater experience, they have the tools to tell their stories.
“To me, storytelling is at the center of what we do,” Chambers says. “Theater gives us the opportunity to see stories unfold in so many different ways. This interaction between the audience watching a story unfold then gives them the opportunity to say, ‘I have a story too, and it matters.’”
Not only is it fun to see a story brought to life, but, as Chambers points out, it’s also a validation of our experience in this world.
“There are many ways to look at our lives and to find ways to relate to one another,” she says. “I think theater gives us this medium of relating.”
Chambers’ parents were both painters. While she grew up with an appreciation for looking at the world in different ways, she always thought it was a bummer that her parents had to work independently with just a canvas in order to create art.
“I, on the other hand, got to go to rehearsal, take this script, and work with these other weirdos just like me who want to tell stories and put on a new character,” she says. “Plus, we got to come up with a presentation that then goes away, which is the magic of live theater – the fact that after that performance is done, all we have is the memory. I love the ephemeral nature of theater. But also, at the center of it, are our stories.”
The collaborative element of theater is also beautiful.
“The cool thing about theater is that we can incorporate all these other artistic mediums too,” Chambers says. “We need playwrights to create a story. We need music designers who figure out how to tell that story through sound. We need lighting designers to help us direct our attention to what we need to look at. It’s truly so collaborative, and that’s really exciting.”
StageOne Family Theatre’s business office is located at 315 West Market Street, Suite 2S in Louisville. To learn more about StageOne’s week-long summer camps and drama classes, call 502-498-2436 or visit stageone.org.