By Carrie Kirby
The kids rehearse until they are exhausted and then sometimes gather without the teachers for weekend practice sessions. They work with a musical director and choreographer, and perform with professional-caliber lighting, often singing to live musical accompaniment.
And yet, Tomorrow Youth Repertory's "mainstage" summer theater camp in Alameda isn't meant as a training program for a career in the performing arts.
"I work with the assumption that most kids won't go into theater. The main thing I want them to get out of it are wider life skills," said Tyler Null, the program's co-founder and tireless director. Null does everything, from writing scripts and directing shows to managing the program's other nine teachers, running the lighting, and even occasionally manning the intermission snack bar.
The life skills on Null's list include experiencing some failure, since it's almost impossible to put on a full-scale musical in three weeks without a hitch. There's inevitably that moment when someone misses their entrance and the performers on stage need to ad-lib, or when a prop that worked perfectly during rehearsal refuses to cooperate in front of an audience.
"Kids often think of failure as something that's bad, but I think it's the most important thing you can do in order to grow. So we try to do something exciting, but also hard," Null said.
That said, the kids are talented, and they get strong direction, so despite the occasional mishap, the end result is a production worth watching even if your kid isn't in it.
This year, TYR is tackling Little Shop of Horrors and a nonmusical production yet to be named for its mainstage program, which is cast by audition and typically features two casts for each show, allowing more kids the chance to take the stage. TYR also offers a four-week "all-experience" camp, which is producing Robin Hood this summer, and a number of one-week, half-day performance skills classes. The organization also offers similar options as after-school classes throughout the year, including a Shakespeare program that is putting on Romeo & Juliet June 1-2.
Null and his staff nurture kids' sense of teamwork with their peers, playing up ensembles rather than divas. That effort isn't lost on parents.
"Neither of my kids does team sports, so TYR has offered them a chance to experience working as a group with peers to make something amazing come together," said Andrea Beil, whose son and daughter have participated in TYR productions for several years.
Beil's daughter, Sadie, 11, recently played The Beast in Beauty and the Beast Jr. She said she was inspired by other kids to work hard enough to progress from bit parts to a leading role.
"I saw there were older people who were really committed. They were loud and bold and brave, and I thought it would be more fun to have a bigger part," Sadie said.
Another of Null's hopes for the kids is that portraying a part in a play will teach them empathy for people who are different than them. Cami Fill, 14, who portrayed Madame Thenardier in last summer's Les Misérables, noticed that benefit herself.
"It makes you grow as a person, having to take on different roles and see things from every point of view," Fill says.
Many kids have stayed in TYR through elementary, middle and high school, and have made their closest friends there. Younger kids who start out intimidated by more experienced high school actors end up calling the older kids "mom" by the end of week one.
That warm and fuzzy feel comes from the top down. After the last performance in every program, Null hands each child a personal thank you note, remarking on how they've grown and improved during the course of the show. That's no small task for a camp with 80 to 90 kids, but it means a lot to them.
"I still have all my cards, all the way through my first show, Aladdin," said Null.
Coming productions include Robin Hood, open to all experience levels, grades 2-7, four weeks, date TBA, cost $1,375, and A Murderous Mainstage including Little Shop of Horrors and Arsenic and Old Lace, by audition, middle school and up, three weeks, date TBA, cost $1,050. Sign up at www.TomorrowYouthRep.org.
Carrie Kirby is a parent volunteer for TYR.