Children in the Creative Stages program perform in the world premiere of “Beyond the Path” earlier this year. A yearly main stage production guarantees every child in the program a part in the play.
Creative Stages Program Unique to Higher Education
(Note: This article appeared in the July 2009 edition of "Campus Connection," a collaborative publication of colleges and universities in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.)
The show must go on – and for more than 40 years, the Siena Heights University’s Creative Stages child drama program has.
A one-of-a-kind, nationally recognized program operated by SHU’s theatre department, Creative Stages helps area children in grades 1-12 develop valuable skills like verbal and non-verbal communication and public speaking.
“As far as I know, there are no other higher education programs doing this,” said Creative Stages Director Dr. Kerry Graves, also an associate professor of Theatre and Speech Communication at SHU. “There are other drama programs for children, but usually with a higher cost and a greater emphasis on ‘acting’ skills as opposed to creative dramatics. Our program allows children at all sorts of levels of talent and development to learn new skills, gain confidence and just have fun while working with others.”
The late Sister Therese Craig, a Siena Heights theatre professor and a member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters congregation, founded the child drama/theatre programs in the 1960s as an after-school endeavor. Then for 31 years under the direction Trudy McSorley, who currently serves as SHU’s dean for students, it quickly grew into much more, teaching problem-solving, critical thinking and independence vital not only to the development of children, but to potential teachers in Siena’s teacher education program as well. That link between teacher education and theatre remains at Siena Heights to this day.
“I know of no other program that trains teachers in creative dramatics with hands-on class work and real children to learn with,” Graves said.
The program conducts sessions throughout the year and divides children by age level – with different areas of focus for each group. Skills such as verbal expression, sensory and body awareness – even empathy and problem-solving – are nurtured and encouraged.
Graves said the program is perfect not only for the “dramatic” child who is always performing or acting out, but also for those “shy” children.
“We create a safe, non-judgmental environment where children can explore and discover things while having fun adventures and experiences,” Graves said. “We see so many children who come in afraid to speak out, but leave as comfortable speakers and leaders.”
With as many as 120 children in the program at one time, Graves and fellow SHU theatre faculty members Joni Warner, Doug Miller and Mark DiPietro, as well as theatre staff and students all pitch in and help. That means organization is key.
“I am very considerate of peoples’ time,” said Graves, whose program draws children from not only Lenawee County but also from southeastern Michigan and northwest Ohio. “There is no sitting around.”
Classes average about 20-30 students per age grouping. Class leaders/teachers prepare a plan for class, but “you also need the connection to the children and the ability to follow where they lead once you get things set up,” Graves said.
The highlight of the program is a yearly main stage production that guarantees every child in the program a part in the play.
“The show experience is very different from class because you must do what the director and the script tells you to do,” Graves said. “There is a lot more structure. It’s more like a team. It is very collaborative with more boundaries and rules to follow. This experience gives participants a different set of skills that are also very valuable.”
“There are children who were afraid to walk into class one year, and the next year they are belting out lines on stage,” Graves said of the transformational effect of the program. “Children who are totally non-verbal will join our class and open up by the end. It’s great for the shy ones.”
To learn more about SHU’s Creative Stages child drama program, call 517-264-7890.
Junior high- and high school-aged participants in the Creative Stages program acted out the world premiere of “Cafeteria Clash” earlier this year. The play addressed how today’s teens deal with issues like bullying, peer pressure, the onslaught of technology and academic pressure.