Each Saturday morning at Stage Door Productions in downtown Fredericksburg, kids as young as 5 are learning expression, movement for actors, improvisation and how to deliver a stirring monologue.
Some of their teachers are Stage Door board members, but through Feb. 23, the children will be coached in acting skills by students in the University of Mary Washington’s theater program.
This is the first year of a partnership between UMW and the downtown organization, and it represents a new emphasis on community engagement for the university, said Miriam Liss, a UMW pyschology professor and Stage Door board member who conceived of the workshop series.
Liss chaired a committee on community engagement last year and her children participate in Stage Door productions.
“I was thinking a lot about community engagement at UMW and realized that Stage Door is a community group, and perhaps since [UMW president Troy] Paino had just talked to the faculty in his meeting in August about the importance of community engagement, it would be time for a partnership,” she said.
Gregg Stull, chair of the UMW theater department, was supportive of the idea.
The theater department is also working toward more community engagement, he said. UMW’s 10-year plan includes a new fine arts complex that would sit at the corner of Sunken Road and William Street and face downtown.
“So we want to bring them to us and also have us to go them,” he said.
Students in the theater department put together workshops on audition skills, improvisation, movement, monologues, Shakespeare, stage combat and storytelling for kids ages 5 through 18, based on classes taken for the theater major but adapted for younger ages.
Many of the student teachers are also in UMW’s education program, so they brought pedagogy skills and an enthusiasm for school-aged learners with them.
“It’s great for them to get experience as a teaching artist,” Stull said. “They are absolutely loving it, and the great thing is it’s all student-run, so it helps build leadership.”
The 14 student-teachers are sophomores, juniors and seniors, Stull said. The Saturday morning workshops are broken up by age, with one for kids 5–9, one for 10–14 and a third for 15–18. Each workshop is taught by a pair of UMW students.
Liss said the school-aged kids respond well to the younger student teachers.
“They are full of energy and enthusiasm and kids can see them as role models,” she said. “I think it promotes UMW theater because perhaps some of these students will want to come to UMW and major in theater.”
Even if workshop participants don’t choose to become drama majors, theater skills are still good for their academic and social-emotional learning.
“[Theater skills] promote confidence and speaking skills,” Liss said. “Theater also promotes empathy as you learn to relate to characters that are different than you are. Being involved in theater is also a great opportunity to feel involved and connected in a community and to make friends.”
Stull said theater helps kids express their feelings and manage their anxieties.
“In today’s world, we need to give kids the opportunity to be present with their feelings and share their feelings,” he said.
Register for Stage Door’s workshops ($20 each or $15 each for six or more) at stagedoorproductions.org/Workshops. UMW students will teach workshops on Saturday and Feb. 23.