The best part about being a kid is that you can be anything you want — a doctor, a fairy princess, or a superhero. Dramatic play allows children to get lost in their own little world, using their imaginations to become silly characters and act out crazy stories.
But some kids find it harder to lose themselves, lacking the self confidence to perform in front of others. Others don’t think they have the skills they need to audition for community theatre or school performances.
Courtney Clarke leads Drama Kids of Wilmington, and her goal is for every child to develop their innate, imaginative impulses and gift for role playing, which are too rarely encouraged as children grow into teens and adulthood.
Clarke brings her after-school program to schools and churches several days a week at locations throughout New Castle County where every child who wants to act will land a role, learn to perform with confidence, and come away smiling about their experience.
When she took over the enterprise five years ago, 25 students were enrolled. Clarke has quickly grown the program, which now serves more than 400 kids.
One happy participant is Elise Rogers. When Elise was six years old, she was one of those children for whom role playing just wasn’t fun. She loved to sing and dance but was shy in front of others, especially adults or older kids. Her mom Mary Russell says Elise would make up excuses to get out of performing.
So when Elise started first grade, her mom enrolled her Clarke’s program at Pleasantville Elementary in New Castle. At the first in-class performance, Elise started crying and needed help from a teacher to finish the show. But things slowly improved as Elise learned the techniques Clarke shares with all of her students.
Now eight years old, Elise has been in the program for over a year and her mom says she has shown noticeable improvements and now takes great joy performing for others.
“We understand that if you are young, you are going to make mistakes, and you may have to overcome fears. But at our program, you’re welcomed in at every skill level because how are you going to fall in love with acting if you’re not given a chance?” said Clarke.
Claymont Elementary School, student Colin French says one of his favorite experiences with Drama Kids of Wilmington was when his group sang the National Anthem at a Blue Rocks game.
But he also says he enjoys making friends at the Drama Kids classes and doing what he loves with other kids who like to do the same thing. “It’s just a great experience. And it’s also nice that everyone gets a part, so you’re never let down.”
Darby McLaughlin, who has performed in professional theater in the tri-state area and co-teaches the classes with Clarke, says that’s one of the keys to the program’s success. “We want to make sure that everyone knows that they are important because when you put on a show, every single role is important. And we tell the kids ‘Whatever role you get, it’s because you’re perfect for that role,’” she said.
Ten-year-old Ashley Margolis, who is enrolled in the evening Dram Kids community classes at Immanuel Highlands Church in Wilmington, says she has been in several productions including Once on This Island, Seussical, Peter Pan and now Willy Wonka Junior. “I just really love it here. In Peter Pan I had to do four parts – three of them on stage. And that was a lot of fun. I think that really helped me a lot for my acting,” she said.
Many students seem to grow in their appreciation for the program. One girl initially refused to audition or sing in front of anybody. After taking classes at Drama Kids, she auditioned for the musical at her school last year and won a leading role.
Another girl was so shy that she wouldn’t even talk to the school lunch lady. After a few months of Drama Kids, she would eagerly convey her dining preferences.
Drama Kids’ aims to focus on each students’ individual development, honing skills such as self-esteem, public speaking, and leadership. Clarke says her program offers a welcoming, noncompetitive environment that reduces the pressure usually involved in performing and turns it into something fun and enjoyable.
Clarke is a former teacher and daycare provider who has been acting in community theater and some professional shows since her mid-twenties. Her staff of nine instructors serves children from kindergarten to 8th grade.
Classes start with an introductory activity that gets the students comfortable with creative movement. The instructor might say, “Pretend that you’re stuck outside in a rainstorm and you’re waiting for a taxi.” The students then use their imagination to act out this scenario, showing how they feel and what their body language might look like.
Clarke notes that the group aspect of the activities ensures that students are “never put in the spotlight position right off the bat.”
There are many other ways that Drama Kids eases students into performing — those who don’t want to say their lines alone are often partnered up with an older student, or one who has been in the program longer. Of course, if a student really does not want to participate in an activity, Drama Kids respects their wishes.
But Clarke has found that after a few weeks, these same students will tell her that they feel comfortable enough to say their lines by themselves. “It’s so cool to watch them grow into that,” she adds.
There is also a speech portion of every class where students work on things like diction and articulation. One technique they use is called “Me, We, You.” The instructors will say the lines first, then together with the student, and then the student will say lines on their own. This allows them to break down the parts of speech that are important to acting.
This same technique is used to teach students their lines for a performance, rather than just giving each student a script. “We found that if we hand everybody a piece of paper, then the kindergartners and first graders might be struggling even reading sections of lines themselves and get frustrated,” Clarke explains.
At the end of every school year, Drama Kids rents out a theater and puts on a short show. This performance involves scripts, costumes, and props, and is a culmination of what the students have been working on all year.
Robin Marshall, a mother of two children in the program, describes these performances as “fun, informal shows that have a great emphasis on the kids being comfortable on stage and performing in front of an audience.”
Drama Kids finds the careful balance between making these shows casual enough that students aren’t nervous, but also hyping them up enough to make them excited. “It is a big deal, but we also tell parents it’s not,” says Clarke. “We’ve had shows where kids need help with every single line; we’ve had shows where kids get stage fright at the last second and the teacher jumps up there and is with them.”
Drama Kids of Wilmington also hosts a cabaret performance every October that features students, parents, and local talent. This year’s cabaret takes place on Saturday, October 19th at the Gilbert Perry Center for the Arts.
This is Drama Kids’ first cabaret to feature American Sign Language interpreters. Half of the event proceeds go towards the Delaware School for the Deaf. Admission is only $5.00. The combination of music and the beauty of sign language will make for a visually stunning performance that you won’t want to miss.