Three young boys zoom around the empty stage at Very Merry Theatre on a recent Saturday morning. One wields a prop — a sign that reads "Burger Palace" — as if it were a sword and charges up to a balcony to face his opponent. Another clambers on hands and feet around a painted foam rock. Their moms wait at the door with drama instructor Jane Beaumont-Snyder to see if more children will show for the Saturday Drama Club.
The club is a weekly opportunity for 6 to 12-year-olds to create, stage and star in a drama of their own making — all in three hours. Along the way, the kids have a blast and hone their social skills, too. Anyone can show up, making the group's dynamic as unpredictable as the 15-minute performance at the end. Parents drop off their kids and return to play the important part of audience for the show.
Since 2002, Very Merry Theatre has been casting Vermont children in plays by Shakespeare, Dickens, Carroll and Twain. In summer, the company uses a traveling theater wagon to peddle its plays at festivals and other events. The "camp" sessions that take place in Charlotte are already sold out for 2012.
Cofounder Don Wright says the Saturday Drama Club began almost four years ago when the company opened its 333 theater space, a brick building decorated with cheerful murals behind Pho Hong on North Winooski Avenue. He passed the program on to director Trish Denton, a Goddard College grad who specializes in physical theater. Beaumont-Snyder, who is Denton's regular assistant, is substituting for her on this particular Saturday.
A veteran of Spielpalast Cabaret, Denton uses clowning and miming exercises to engage her charges, and says she's seen kids grow more empowered. "It's about cultivating the imagination, and the skills with which to apply your imagination in the outside world," she says during a phone interview.
The moms say other children got their own interested in theater. Lynn Sutton explains that her son, Thomas, has older sisters who are "very into drama." Nyarkoa Mensah-Jordan says her son, Zaiah, had a friend in the club. "We create these shows for our neighbors three times a year," she adds, and Very Merry Theatre seemed like a good next step.
"Are you going to leave yet?" Zaiah calls out from the balcony, making his mother laugh. When the parents are gone, the instructors lead the boys in a round of drama games where they take turns acting like "weird people," whales and police cars. After a snack break, they start talking about their characters. Before long, Thomas is the owner-chef of the Burger Palace, Zaiah is a vegetarian and undercover PETA agent, and the third boy, Kody, is a wild panda.
"It all fits together in the end," assures the experienced Denton. "It's all very wacky and free form, but it's surprising how well things gel."