SPARTA, NJ-On Friday, May 9, the eighth graders of Hilltop Country Day School were treated to a unique experience, spending a day with the professional artists of The Growing Stage –The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey.  From the moment they arrived, the girls were afforded backstage tours, behind the scenes insights, interviews with the actors, designers, teachers, and directors, and opportunities to create their own puppets and learn how to perform with them on the stage.  This was a chance to see how a professional theater operates and to learn what it takes to be part of a creative environment.

On arrival, the girls were welcomed with their names in lights, scrolling on the marquee.  The group was greeted by the executive director of the theater, the education director, the marketing director, and the artist-in-residence.  All then went to breakfast at the nearby restaurant, which gave them a morning meeting with the professionals to share backgrounds and interests. 

The students were able to voice their interests in dance and karate, and the Growing Stage staff spoke of the paths they had taken to prepare for their jobs, through education and work experiences.  It was informative for the students to learn of the post-secondary schooling and training that led to jobs in the theater.

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After breakfast, a full tour of the theater was hosted by the staff, from the light booth on the third floor to the trap stage door that goes beneath the stage, to the ticket booth in the lobby.  They were able to view posters, old photos, and hear the stories of this historic building from its vaudeville days in 1919 to the present.  That history included informaiton about  when it was considered a historic landmark, restored to its original design with a national reputation in family entertainment. 

The students watched the performance of “Knuffle Bunny” from the catwalk, the area of the balcony where the lights are hung, and then were given a backstage tour and meetings with the six professional actors, following the performance.

Lunch was next, and the “Knuffle Bunny” director joined the group at Carmine’s so that the girls could ask questions about the production, the rehearsal process, the directorial decisions, and the process by which a popular children’s book becomes a play. 

Back at the theater, the third floor workspace became a puppeteer workshop.  Artist-in-residence and designer Perry A. Kroeger showed the girls how to make one of the puppets that had been featured in the show using cereal boxes, socks, and cardboard.  After constructing their own puppets, the girls brought their “birds” to the stage, where teaching artists Lori and Danny provided a lesson in the actor’s tools:  voice, body, and imagination.  They were then directed in a short skit, using their puppets, which they will perform for the students at Hilltop on June 2.

When asked for constructive criticism about the day, one student said, “The only thing is, I wish we could have stayed a little longer.”  This was a full day of artistic activities, touching on all facets of the craft and business of theater.  The eighth graders were able to learn quite a bit with hands-on experiences, as actors, designers, puppeteers, interviewers, critics, and audience members. 

 Lori B. Lawrence is the Director of Educational Programing/Workshop Lead Instructor, Perry Arthur Kroeger is the Artist in Residence/Workshop Lead Artist, Danny Campos is the Teaching Artist and Stephen L Fredericks is the Executive Director of The Growing Stage.