Thirty squirrely students swirl in from the street, talking and laughing, jostling and poking. It is the first rehearsal for Annie, Jr., a production of Pacific Children’s Theater (PCT) in Mission Hills. Each child is greeted by theater director and PCT founder Graham Russo. The energy level is high, and it is hard for an outsider to see how such a raucous group can be wrangled into learning lines and dances, songs and cues to create a play. But before them sit three brave instructors, ready to take on the task of creating theater magic out of kid-sized chaos.
First up is Rosy-Dawn Selwitz, vocal professional and voice coach. Under Selwitz’s direction, the students begin to warm up their voices with exercises only a children’s theater professional could invent.
“Fla-fla-ningy-ningy, fla-fla-ningy-ningy,” they sing. “Mommy made me mash my M & M’s,” their voices rising in scales and arpeggios. The children giggle. After they warm up, the music of “Hard Knock Life” fills the theater, and the fun and hard work begins.
Small Staff, Big Heart
This year, Pacific Children’s Theater (PCT) celebrates its eleventh year of productions. Founded as an educational theater arts program for children, PCT has evolved into a not-for-profit organization on a mission that moves beyond mere theater education into the social-emotional core of learning and the inclusion of all children.
“PCT is more than just a place where kids can perform,” Russo says. “It’s a place where people can belong. Our teachers work to make a personal connection with each student. That’s what we’re about.”
Russo’s personal teaching style is reflected in his small staff, as well. In addition to vocal instructor, Selwitz, dancer Erin Jelacic works with students to help them recognize and master the physical aspects of acting and dancing. A lifelong dancer through college and her professional career, Jelacic helps children inhabit their bodies and give their movements depth and joy. Even the most awkward child finds inner grace under Jelacic’s instruction and choreography.
Community Theater = Community Inclusion
Russo began PCT with the goal of giving all children, regardless of their abilities, a chance to experience the joy of theater arts and performance. While children may attend other theater arts programs for years without having a chance to perform a play for a paying public, PCT gives every child who applies an opportunity to be a part of something outsized and awe-inspiring: a play.
Russo came by his philosophy of inclusion through an inspiring mentor. In one of Russo’s first jobs after graduating from UCLA’s theater program, he worked at Pershing Middle School, teaching drama under the direction of Terry Miller, now a teacher at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, and a PCT board member. Miller had a big influence on Russo, especially in her philosophy of inclusion.
“When I went to work with Terry, there would be a hundred kids in the show,” Russo says. “Deep down inside in me, I can’t be happy if I’m rejecting someone. A kid is someone with an open mind who wants to experience the joy of theater. I would not sleep well at night if I had to turn that child away.”
One of PCT’s goals has been to provide theater to children who might not otherwise get to experience the joy of performance—or even the wonder of seeing live theater—in Title One schools. Over the years, Russo has found creative ways (as well as generous donors and supportive parents) to fund PCT’s school programs in such schools as Garfield Elementary, Urban Discover Charter School, the San Diego Cooperative Charter School and Explorer Elementary Charter School, in addition to public performances at the Mission Hills United Church.
PCT’s inclusive spirit is one of the things that makes for great education, as well as heart-warming theater.
“I’m not looking at each child and how they look,” Russo says. “I want to know that kids reach their potential, do their best, and put their all into everything they do. That’s what will lead a person to be more successful and happy in life. If your efforts and words are helping people, that’s what’s important.”
Small Theater, Big Heart
Fast forward nine weeks: The Annie, Jr. cast and crew are in a flurry, getting ready for opening night. In the lobby, parents are selling tickets, siblings are setting up a concession stand and alumni of the program are flocking in to watch. The elementary-aged crew is checking lights, sounds, props and curtains. Backstage, parents are helping children apply make-up and excited performers hug each other, almost unable to contain their excitement.
A half hour later, the show begins, order spun from chaos, joy spilling across the stage in a wave of exuberant song. Magic is at work: the magic of theater, the magic of community, the magic of open hearts.
For more information about Pacific Children’s Theater’s programs and performances, as well as information on their upcoming production of Sarah, Plain and Tall, visit https://sdpct.weebly.com.
Cindy Jenson-Elliott is a children’s book author and teacher in San Diego. Her latest book, “Weeds Find a Way,” is just out from Beach Lane Books.
Published: February 2014