Great things in theater really can happen in a strip mall. Case in point: The Theater Bug, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire young people to create community and develop their own confidence through the performing arts.
Founded two-and-a-half years ago by actress/teacher Cori Anne Laemmel, The Theater Bug began life at Donelson's Keeton Theatre, then moved to the Family Wash building in East Nashville. Since October, the company has been operating out of a strip mall at 2618 Gallatin Pike.
Now Laemmel and 50 performers ages 4 to 20 will present the company's first major production at the new venue: The Barefoot Children in the City of Ward, an original play inspired by young people with long-term illnesses. Gilda's Club is a co-sponsor.
Incorporating her own research, feedback from Gilda's Club staffers and interviews with affected families, Laemmel uses both fantasy and symbolism to craft a moving tale set in a pediatric oncology ward, where the children invite the audience into a world of their imagination. It's an all-ages show, though the production features some mature themes.
"As hard as these real-life stories were, what I learned is that sick kids are still just kids," Laemmel says. "This is a part of their life, and they are super-resilient, lovely little people. We're trying to build a bridge, because being sick can seem scary. ... Besides, I want to reinforce the idea that performing is not just showing off — that it can mean something and help people." (Part of the show's proceeds will benefit Gilda's Club, and two of their kids will be making cameos.)
Laemmel is introducing her young thespians — two full casts of 25 each, all of whom auditioned — to the actor's regimen. "Auditions give the kids a bigger investment in the show. What sets us apart is that we're performance-based — we offer the kids performance opportunities. And we're building toward having a full season like any theater would."
Laemmel's preference for mounting original material seems ambitious as well, though the reality is much simpler. "Necessity is the mother of invention," she says. "We have yet to do something not original, and it really was a question of being unable to pay for royalties. But what has happened is I find I've been able to write specifically for my kids."
For City of Ward, Laemmel enlisted designers Amanda Meador and Michael Redman to create her set. She collaborated with Eric Fritsch on the music. Meanwhile, the actress, who has performed at various local theater companies and has also taught at Nashville Children's Theatre and Street Theatre Company, continues the ongoing process of transforming her storefront enterprise. That includes receiving volunteer assistance from any and all quarters, including her husband, actor Tyson Laemmel, who's handy with a hammer.
"Renovations are ongoing," she says. "We struggled about whether we were ready for this space, but for now the rent is affordable. East Nashville has a huge artistic community, so parents are looking for this kind of programming. We want to create an environment for the kids to be in that feels professional — but also safe."
For more information, visit thetheaterbug.org or call 423-4626.
Nashville Children's Theatre recently opened the regional premiere of Y York's Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly. The play attempts to recapture the early childhood years of artist Della Wells, and is reinforced by an exhibit of Wells' art in the theater lobby — expressive collages with found objects, as well as pastels, acrylic paintings and ink drawings. (More of Wells' art can be seen in an exhibit opening Friday at Metro Arts Gallery. For more information, see Critics' Picks on p. 17.)
The art is certainly evocative, yet the play has its limitations. The milieu is the fictional Bridge household, circa 1964, where 9-year-old Tonia (Wells' alter ego) lives with her father (a postman) and mother, who struggles with emotional issues complicated by delusions. Her mother's illness and father's anxiety conflict with Tonia's youthful creative spirit, and at one point the girl's aunt suggests that she come to live with her instead (an idea not greeted with enthusiasm by the father).
There are moments where the playwright's words connect with her central theme, but the production suffers from a repetitive feel due to the story's narrow scope. Plus having an intermission in a roughly 80-minute piece interrupts the show's flow and tempers its impact.
Actress Jessica Kuende's Tonia is energetic and highly animated, a viable portrait of a young artist in development. David Chattam and Aleta Myles are the parents, and Alicia Haymer is the devoted aunt, and all three deliver credible portrayals. Tonia's neighbor friend, Theo, is performed by Bralyn Stokes, whose characterization is affected and lacks consistency. The technical highlight is scenic designer Scott Leathers' visually engaging mosaic backdrop.
The play continues through Feb. 10 at NCT's Hill Theatre.
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