Beauty and the Beast Jr.

St. Paul’s Liberty Lutheran Church Education Center

Friday and Saturday, June 28-29

7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday matinee

Tickets: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $40 for families (2 adults and 3 or more children). Free for children under age 5. Tickets sold at the door or in advance by calling (608) 764-5267 or emailing firstwingtheatre@gmail.com

Giving young performers a theatre family, and a safe space to tell stories, has always been the goal of Ann Holmes, longtime artistic director First Wing Family Theatre in Deerfield.

Since 1997, when the group formed under the umbrella of Dance Studio 3D, it has offered family-friendly productions while building community.

On Friday and Saturday, June 28 and 29, First Wing will perform “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” at the St. Paul’s Liberty Lutheran Church Education Center, 3494 Oak Park Rd. There will be 7 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday and a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee.Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $40 for families (2 adults and 3 or more children) and free for children under age 5. Tickets will be available at the door or in advance by calling (608) 764-5267 or emailing firstwingtheatre@gmail.com

Holmes recently spoke about this summer’s show and about First Wing’s commitment to storytelling and connection.

Q: Can you share a bit about your background?

A: I went to college and took some improv classes; that was my first theatre experience. And then I worked in Jefferson for 15 years teaching elementary school. During that time, I got the part of Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof” kind of out of the blue, and I thought “this is fabulous. I love it.” I did lots of community theatre and some stuff with Madison Repertory Theatre and Madison Opera and studied voice, and my husband and I were in a bluegrass gospel band for many years. And then we had our children. When they were old enough to start dance lessons at Studio 3D I got involved there. They needed a director helper for a talent show and I thought, “well, I can do that.” It kind of blossomed from there and became 3D Family Theatre and then First Wing.

Q: You’re a month out now from staging "Beauty and the Beast Jr.," with a cast of 62 kids. How are rehearsals going?

A: These early rehearsals are always exciting because it’s so many kids from all over the place. Just getting to feel each other out, know each other and know the show. When we cast it, I said to them, “I've already seen this show in my head. I know what you are going to offer the audience, and it's beautiful.” To see that starting to come to life, the characters, it’s cool.

It's a really large cast. The youngest is 7, the oldest is 18, and they’re from 12 different communities. All different schools. Some are in public schools, some are home-schooled, some are in private schools; it’s a great mix of kids.

We have made it part of our mission over the years to accept everyone who auditions. This year we thought we’d have to limit the cast; it's the biggest audition we’ve had. But we ended up being able to cast everyone.

This year is a little bit of a switch because I have, for many years, done shows that aren't super well-known. There are beautiful theatre pieces out there, that you won't see Disney doing, or Broadway. This year, I thought “let’s just do one that's familiar.”

“Beauty and the Beast” wasn’t even on my radar. I was looking to do another little show that we’d done years ago, and I saw that and thought “yep, this is it.”

It's got the main character parts, lots of solos, lots of speaking parts, but there are also lots of possibilities for the newer, and younger kids. There’s a pack of wolves who get to do the attack scenes and there are little boys who are “already practicing my howling, Mrs. Holmes.”

And the story is wonderful. You can't say enough about looking beyond appearances, in how we love and respect others. This is just the quintessential telling of that, and I think it's important for all of us to hear. That you can change, “and maybe there’s more to that person, more to that idea, more to that group of people than I realized.”

Q: How did you choose the name First Wing Family Theatre?

A: The wing on the stage is the curtains on the side. It’s a live place just off stage where we wait for our cue or we make our entrance, where we get ready to shine.

For some young actors, our stage is a place to take off for the first time, testing their dramatic wings.

It’s really important for kids not to think they have to wait for the chance to be on a big stage before they can be an actor. We get into these mindsets, these limiting focuses, ‘this is what theatre looks like, this is what music looks like.”

The early theatre troops, Shakespeare's time and before, they had a cart, or they had a little slab of concrete in the stone square and some scarves, and they would put together incredible, gorgeous theatre.

If you have a really good storyteller who can sit in a rocking chair with a floor full of kids and tell a story, and have them completely captivated, to me that is equal to a ten-trillion-dollar-budget Broadway production.

You don't have to come out of 10 years with First Wing a ready-for-Broadway actor. They say on the list of stressful things in life, speaking in front of people often tops death. Theatre builds your confidence, your self-esteem, your poise. That’s just so important to learn early on, so you aren’t terrified all your life of getting up and speaking.

I think it’s really important for kids to have faith that “ooh, I can do this.”

The cast comes away learning how to do some theatre, learning how to be better actors. Maybe some of them don't realize they have some gifts for this and they start interacting and realize they do.

It's a scary adventure to be on stage and be that vulnerable. To try digging inside yourself and becoming somebody else, speaking so you can be heard across a room. That’s all scary. The end product is, you've got these incredibly poised and gifted and “Hey, I can do that” kids. It’s beautiful to see.

Q: How else is First Wing a family?

A: We added “family theatre” to the name to indicate that the material we present is family-friendly; we’re just committed to that. As time went on, I think it shifted in the minds of people involved, and the family-ness of the cast became more real. Now, from the get-go, from the first cast meeting, we make it clear to the kids that that’s what we’re about.

The friendships that have developed through that are just incredible to see; they’re friendships that'll last forever. Kids have said, “these people will be in my heart forever.”

This is like a one-room school. There are kids who have been with us for 10, 12 years. The older ones take the younger kids, and the new kids, under their wing. They make a safe space, they make them feel welcome. The new kids, the younger ones especially, bring something unique, too. There’s a freshness and an energy we lose when we’re about nine or ten, because you start to get self-conscious. What those little ones bring to light, it’s just exquisite.

You come together, and you work at something, you become friends, you become a family and then you go your way again. But now you’ve got a friend in Stoughton or in Madison.

You get to opening night and there’s a certain sadness, in that our time of working and playing and being and building and creating is over. We get to offer this gift, which is exciting, but it's bittersweet too; every year kids cry.

Q: Who else, besides the cast, helps pull off a production like this?

A: I am blessed with my husband who is an incredible woodworker and another cast father who is a builder; he's actually right now doing the sets for Wizard of Oz in Madison. They can take whatever vision I have and build it.

We have a raised platform stage that will be put up at the beginning of June. You have this vision of what this is going to look like and then we start putting it together, “there’s the Beast’s stairs, or there’s Belle's cottage.”

I have three choreographers who are First Wing veterans. They are gifted musicians and dancers and singers and actors, and they help with the vision of “okay, look, there’s a platform that could be the Beast’s whatever.”

With “Beauty and the Beast,” we’ll have the wolves coming through the audience. I think that intimacy pulls an audience into the story in a nice way, too. That, you can do in smaller spaces.

-To hear portions of the original interview for this article, check out the 2019 Summer Arts Guide podcasts on our website: http://www.hngnews.com/cambridge_deerfield/

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