By Owen Bryant
For a town the size of Reno, we sure do have a pretty developed community theater scene that seems to strengthen and expand every year. Most locals are probably familiar with names like Brüka, Good Luck Macbeth and Reno Little Theater. But it’s important to remember that there is a lot more going on in the scene aside from the “big three” mainstays.
Before delving into community theater, options for younger generations are somewhat limited. Aside from school drama programs, which may or may not be very developed, youths have little else in the way of honing their dramatic talents. That’s where TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada comes in.
TWNN got started in 2004 and is set up to serve youths and underprivileged families who may be unable to take a class or go to a club. It is an equal opportunity, non-profit program that uses theater as a catalyst for adults and children to learn from each other and have fun in the process. It is also meant to be a safe space for everyone involved, and is inclusive no matter a person’s abilities, behavioral issues or any other differences they may have. Anyone from the age of three and up is welcome to join.
About four years ago, TWNN moved into their own space at 315 Spokane Street in Reno. It’s a little hidden and unassuming, but that doesn’t stop them from putting on a show. The box theater floors and walls were recently remodeled to maximize space, and more renovations are planned, including a new tech booth and curtains.
The impetus for these changes was to give the kids a sense of pride in a space that reflects the levels of talent and dedication they bring with them to each rehearsal and performance.
Their current performance, “James and the Giant Peach Jr.,” based on Roald Dahl’s classic book, is directed by Hannah Mills, who was kind enough to provide the information for this article.
“This show practically put itself together due to these kids being so prepared and excited to work.”
A performer herself, Mills started out in church plays as a youngster and has been acting ever since, with over 30 productions under her belt. She got involved with TWNN when she played Emily in “Elf” and decided to give her first shot at directing with “James.”
“I absolutely loved directing this musical!” said Mills. “Working with kids is my favorite thing in the world. But teaching them about theater and how a musical works is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. It was definitely challenging at times, but I feel the more challenging, the bigger the payoff. And in my opinion, this turned out to be an astonishing show.”
She wasn’t wrong. It was wonderful to see such young kids (and a few adults) giving it their all on the stage, and some of the young talent was impressive.
All the principal actors who played James and his buggy mates on the giant peach brought life and color to their characters. Each one has a promising future in showbiz if they pursue it. They were supported by an ensemble of kids of all ages who seemed to be having the time of their lives, and a few adult actors who took on some of the more demanding roles.
James’s aunts Sponge and Spiker provided a special kind of dark comedy not immediately present in the original novel, from what I can remember.
Mills selected the show based on audience surveys and research to find just the right play. The board ultimately votes on each show until a full season is fleshed out, and that is how “James” came to grace the TWNN stage.
“This show practically put itself together due to these kids being so prepared and excited to work,” Mills said.
Mills explained how TWNN is working to increase its outreach and bring the theater arts to more areas of Northern Nevada where access is limited or nonexistent.
“We want to continue to bring about bigger shows and increase the involvement of youth in the performing arts in all aspects including acting, writing, directing, costuming, et cetera,” Mills said.
As appreciative as I am of theater, I couldn’t agree with her more. Getting children involved in the arts is one of the best ways to keep them alive. The work TWNN is doing is crucial not just for sustaining the arts, but also to help children learn and develop their talents, both on the stage and off.
As I watched James and his friends take their journey on the giant peach, I tried to picture what these kids might be doing in five, 10, even 15 years from now, and it excited me to think some would still be acting on Reno’s community theater stages. Or maybe even bigger ones in bigger cities. They may not realize it, but their experiences now will be impactful later in one way or another, and they will have TWNN to thank for that.
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