Traveling theater program puts 43 students onstage at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences

Traveling theater program puts 43 students onstage at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences

February 1st, 2013 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Hannah Owens, director Dan Watson of the Missoula Children's Theatre, Camille Conley and Amelia Davenport, from left, rehearse a scene from "The Wizard of Oz" at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

Photo by Connor Choate /Times Free Press.

If You Go

* What: "The Wizard of Oz."

* When: 6:30 p.m. tonight and noon Saturday.

* Where: Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, 865 E. Third St.

* Admission: $5 donation.

* Information: 209-5816 or 209-5812.

The large theater inside the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences is empty, but onstage, seven CSAS first- and second-graders are learning to be Winkies, clawing at the air and eeking.

The two girls and five boys are learning to be menacing characters from "The Wizard of Oz," a combination of the flying monkeys and the Winkies (the Wicked Witch's guards, who knew?). They have a hard time looking anything but angelic, though, because of the constant smiling and giggling.

Over the next 90 minutes they learn such lines as "Nope, nope, nope," "Yup, yup, yup," "Woooop" and a few more complicated ones about not messing with the witch, along with a song celebrating her fate. No spoiler here.

Also onstage are director James Scotland IV and two older CSAS students, one playing the Wicked Witch of the West and the other a fourth-grader named Owen. As assistant director, it fell to Owen to read the lines of Dorothy, Glenda the Good Witch and the other main characters in "The Wizard of Oz," who were rehearsing in the school's auxiliary gym with Dan Watson, another Missoula director.

Forty one CSAS students and two from Red Bank Middle were chosen to be in the play during an audition Monday. The nine in the auditorium were meeting with Scotland for the first time to begin learning their parts for the play, which will be presented at the school on Friday and Saturday.

At CSAS they will work with the 43 young actors -- grades kindergarten through 11th -- with rehearsals running from 4 to 8:30 p.m. each day in preparation for the hour-long shows this weekend.

The tornado-quick turnaround is all part of the process for the Missoula Children's Theatre, whose directors travel the country, helping schools produce such shows.

Two weeks ago, Scotland and fellow director Dan Watson worked with students at Fairyland Elementary School on Lookout Mountain in producing "Wizard." Missoula has done several shows over the years with the school, according to Principal Jeremy Roerdink.

"This was the best show in the last couple of years that we've had," he says. "We had about 60 students with 80 that tried out in grades K through five. We like it because exposes them to alternate forms of an educational experience."

CSAS worked with Missoula last summer to produce "The Frog Prince" at the school, according to parent/volunteer Heather McClendon.

"We don't have a theater program at the school, so this is a chance for the kids to do a play," she says.

Onstage in CSAS' larger theater on Monday, Scotland professionally and patiently puts the kids through their paces, doing his best to hold their attention while teaching them their roles. At one point he pauses while teaching them how to "eek!" because one of the boys notices the lining on his jacket is caught in his zipper and is engrossed in getting it fixed.

The same youngster earlier had punched an imaginary wall on stage and made a great show of tending to his injured hand, opening and closing it and trying to shake out the stinger.

"You're not really hurt because the wall doesn't really exist," Scotland admonished.

The director was later interrupted in mid-sentence by a voice from the back announcing, "I have to go to the bathroom." A show of hands indicated the young thespian was not alone and Scotland told the kids to take 10.

"It's all about repetition and keeping them busy," he says during the break.

After the break, you see the fruits of his methods taking shape as the young actors go through their scenes two and three times. Each is better than the last.

McClendon says that, as part of the agreement with Missoula, the school has several obligations, including providing publicity, paying a fee, providing rehearsal and performance spaces and hotel rooms for the directors. Missoula brings a truck full of props and costumes, and the school keeps any proceeds earned during the performances.

Watching the play come together in a week is the fun part, she says.

"It really is remarkable what they do. The performance this summer was wonderful. We had kids singing that we didn't even know could sing."

Scotland says that helping a young person find his or her inner actor is the thrill of the job. His favorite experience was watching a young boy in another play in another city take on the role of a dog.

"It was a non-speaking part and he did phenomenally well. He added his own parts and just did great."

It wasn't until afterward that Scotland learned the young man had Asperger's syndrome.