From Middle School to Our Makerspace: Bringing Theater Production Arts to Generator

If you don’t count our backyard production of Little Red Riding Hood when I was 8 years old, I’d say the 2007 Hinesburg Community School K-4 musical The Aristocats was the first show I’ve worked on as a Theater Production Artist. Well, more “volunteer parent” at the time, but the work was the same: read the script, pull out the props, set and costume items to make, and make them. Alongside my adult peers, our job was to make the young cast and their staged universe look good and we did.

Post-Aristocrats I was hooked. Next up was The Jungle Book, Annie Get Your Gun, The Wizard of Oz. Play after play I happily took on the responsibilities of creating the shows’ artistic elements. And people noticed – kids noticed, and asked: “Ooh, can I help?!” If you’ve ever said yes to that question, you know what a double-edged experience that can be. It’s at once joyful to be making something with a young child and much harder to execute than doing it yourself. But I was that kid once, and I remembered that – it was now my turn to give a “Yes” to the hopeful faces in front of me. Most of them weren’t interested in being on stage, in the spotlight, and neither was I at that age. Where was their opportunity to be a part of the show if not behind the scenes?

So I started a theater production program for kids at HCS, teaching everything from how to create an eye-catching show flyer, to making props, costume and scenic elements, and special effects. I can’t tell you how much fun / not fun it is to supervise two 11-year old boys and an FX bubble machine for 5 shows straight, or to find a sink full of sloppy paint brushes after your “helpers” have left for the day. But I kept at it – Willy Wonka, Little Mermaid, Aladdin. Along the way, I met Danielle Sertz, a director for the FlynnArts Youth Theater program, and I was recruited as a true Production Artist for them. I was back to making these creative show elements alongside adults – and that was fine for a while. I was able to up my game, introducing more complex making into my creations, and only had to clean up after my own messes. But sure enough, after every show, there’d be those kids looking up at me saying, “How did you make that? That’s SO cool! I wish I could do that!” It was now their parents with the hopeful faces, looking for opportunities for their out-of-the-spotlight kids.

And that’s how this summer’s Generator – Flynn camp partnership was born. Last week, Generator member, Brook Martenis, and I hosted a group of five students that signed on to make props and scenic elements for the FlynnArts show, Honk!

Brook and I read the script and made our production lists, worked out budgets and timelines, gathered tools and materials, and set-up the work tables. All that was left was for the campers to show up on Day 1. And they did – five sleepy-eyed but curious kids walked through Generator’s doors and we got started. We made painted paper-bag rocks and cattails from pool noodles. There were laser-cut leaves and snowflakes, a tinfoil butcher knife, and our pièce de résistance – a giant nest made from 2 kiddie pools, cardboard and contractor paper.

At lunch time, we talked about what Production Artists do and how important their role is to this show. I realized how far I had come as a PA myself when I began to discuss things like teasing prop specs out of the directors, audience sight lines and their perception of lettering and details. By the end of the week, our campers delivered dozens of items, on spec and on time, to the FlynnSpace. The actors were thrilled to start working with these creations, remarking on the ingenuity of the working propeller, or the funny, hidden text meant just for them on the giant remote control (“Free Pizza”).

  I was delighted and proud to watch the shows, and even a little teary at “strike”, the breaking-down process after the last show. I hauled off the now-crumbling nest, along with its lessons of how to use a staple gun (grip tight!), or how to properly spray paint (with a swooshing movement – no drips!). And I remembered how we filled it up with our campers for a group photo, our own “fledgling” Production Artists who will someday be looking down at their own set of shy but hopeful faces and saying “Yes”.