It was a wiggly, jiggly sea of limbs in a downtown Fredericksburg studio. Awash in the white-hot glow of theater lights, boys and girls waved their arms and legs in the air before dissolving into laughter.
“How does that feel?” asked University of Mary Washington theatre major Victoria Fortune, who spent a recent Saturday afternoon teaching young thespians about the concepts of potency, radiancy and buoyancy – types of body-movement energy. “You can use a lot of this to help with your movements onstage.”
UMW students like Fortune have teamed up with others to teach Stage Door Youth Workshops, a series of sessions for area children interested in acting. Drawing on skills they’ve learned in their own college courses, Mary Washington theatre majors impart techniques in movement, monologue, storytelling and more. The initiative – launched by an unlikely pair of UMW faculty members – instills cultural understanding, effective communication and other valuable lessons inherent in community theater involvement.
With children, Emily, 10, and Daniel, 12, both budding actors, UMW Professor of Psychological Sciences Miriam Liss had long been involved with Stage Door Productions. When she joined the community theatre group’s board of directors and took the helm of its youth division late last year, she had an idea. Inspired by UMW President Troy Paino’s emphasis on the importance of exposing Mary Washington students to impactful learning experiences, the workshops paired Liss’ newfound board leadership with her role on a University committee tasked with increasing community engagement.
She floated the concept to Gregg Stull, chair of UMW’s Department of Theatre and Dance, who immediately enlisted his students to help. “It’s a win-win situation for us because it puts us in the community,” Stull said, “and we always want to connect with the community.”
The workshops, which started in January and run through March, have Mary Washington students teaching sessions on movement, monologue, scene work, improvisation, audition skills, stage combat, scene study and Shakespeare.
During her recent Saturday session, Fortune, who is assisting a professor this semester in a UMW course called Voice and Body Movement, showed children ways of portraying diverse characters, from a grumpy old man to a bubbly young girl. She had them use the movement techniques she’d taught them to act out tasks familiar in their own daily lives – making a sandwich, feeding fish, playing violin.
“You can be anyone you want to be, and that’s really exciting,” said Liss’ daughter, Emily Kilmartin, who hopes to continue her involvement in community theater as an adult, along with brother Daniel.
Fortune hopes the workshops will help children develop confidence, creativity and a range of social and interpersonal skills, while feeding their love for being onstage.
“When I’m acting, it makes me feel happy,” said 10-year-old Jillian Elkins, who said she looks up to older sister, UMW theatre major and workshop instructor Jessica Elkins, vice president of the national theatre honor fraternity Alpha Psi Omega. “She inspires me to do my best.”