Textbooks down, curtain up

More than anything else in the world, redheaded Ollie Tegarden wanted to be a tree snake. On Monday, the 5-year-old got to act like one for an improvised performance on the Ashland Community Center's stage.

As teacher Eve Smyth of the Ashland Children's Theatre directed other preschoolers, Ollie stayed focused and in character, slithering underneath a make-believe tree.

Without noticing, Ollie was learning through visual, auditory and kinesthetic experiences.

At the end of his weeklong summer theater workshop, he will understand about stage presence.

In addition, he will have practiced how to listen and express himself nonverbally, except for the occasional hiss.

Children who practice theater arts skills have a boost up on academic achievement and social development, experts say.

Research released by the College Board, which administers the SAT, shows that children involved in theater have better attendance records, reading comprehension and standardized test scores than classmates not involved with the arts.

For children of all ages and interests, participating in art activities improves brain development, motor skills and sensory aesthetics, according to the Oregon Department of Education. They know how to think on their feet.

Stepping in when schools have to cut theater curriculum are organizations such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has a summer program for high school seniors, and Ashland Children's Theatre, for kids 4 to 17.

Ollie is one of more than 2,000 children who have enrolled in classes with Ashland Children's Theatre since it started in 2004 with Oregon Stage Works.

In the summer workshops, which start at $60, budding Daniel Radcliffes and Jennifer Lawrences — or not — practice improv and stage combat. They also create narratives and layered characters, and learn how to recite Shakespeare and other playwrights' words.

Each workshop ends with a performance before friends and family.

Ollie's mom, Debbie Tegarden, says there were dozens of summer camps from which to chose. She liked this one for Ollie not because he wants a career in the theater, but because it allows him to experiment with his imagination and collaborate with other kids.

After this workshop, he's off to soccer camp.

"We moved here two weeks ago because we heard Ashland places a priority on children," says Tegarden, while holding another redheaded son,18-month-old Gus. "It's amazing they offer a theater camp."

At the Ashland Children's Theatre, younger children perform with puppets and older kids put on original film-noir plays. Afterward, they may find that they are better storytellers and feel more confident when they return to their classrooms in the fall.

"They are learning life skills," says instructor Kate Sullivan, who has a drama and theater degree from the University of Hawaii and has worked as an OSF understudy. "They learn how to express their ideas to other people."

Some of the children enter the workshop shy, and instructors Smyth and Sullivan encourage them to unleash their inhibitions. One exercise has the kids pretending to be mannequins who come alive when another character on stage isn't looking.

"Some play it safe and barely move out of fear of being caught," says Smyth, who has a theater degree from San Francisco State University and is a member of the comedy improv troupe The Hamazons. "But we tell them to be big. This is a place to take a risk, say 'yes' and stay positive."

Adds Sullivan: "A mistake can be a happy accident."

Then there are the confident kids — like Violet Dials, 4, in Ollie's class — who walk in the first day and want to produce, direct and star in a play of her own creation.

"It's about me," Violet announced from the wings when Smyth invited another little girl to take center stage. Violet's grandfather, actor David Dials, just laughed from the back of the hall.

"You have to wait your turn," Smyth reminded Violet.

The young theater students also study how to create scripts, challenge themselves and take direction.

Still, they sometimes spoke too quietly to be heard, turned their back to the audience or missed a cue.

But when the class ended, they all learned how to take a well-earned bow.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

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