When the day’s classes are over, elementary school children continue to learn to be brave, bold and confident. Apple Tree Productions is filling the afternoon time at Olympia elementary schools with song and theater. Students get to take on a role in a play and follow it through to final production on the stage for an audience.
Everyone receives the script and the studying of lines begins. As an actor reads, the others watch the script carefully, reading the lines, ready to assist or jump in when it’s their turn.
Heidi Fredericks, creator, owner and director of Apple Tree Productions, started the program about seven years ago. She noticed a need in the local primary schools for theater arts. Olympia, being a city with a diverse and ever-growing appreciation of art in the community, has welcomed the effort. Her program runs through multiple schools in the afternoon, visiting each for about three to four weeks, culminating in a theatrical production.
There is room for all who sign up. Each script is adjusted to include each child enrolled.
Reading your lines and having all eyes on you is a big deal. Public speaking is one of the top fears even for adults, so this experience is building resilience at an early age. Having opportunities to speak in front of a group and learn to project their voices is very likely to carry on to other successes for these kids. When it is time to present that report in front of their eighth-grade history class, they may have fewer butterflies. When signups for a club in high school are posted, they may not hesitate to say, “Count me in!” Maybe, when the day arrives that they decide to show their leadership capabilities to a company, this confidence will be key.
Apple Tree provides this opportunity for growth in confidence.
As the scene starts, all actors face downstage. Piano music lilts along a happy tune, and the kids do a high-step silly stomp as they enter the stage on the beat. They are rehearsing for “Snow White Goes West.” As she works with the actors, Heidi demonstrates facial expressions and movements that would fit their characters.
The piano music is live, played by Leland Brungardt, who is attuned to the script and the needs of the students. Perhaps a few notes or a bar or two gets the kids back on script or helps them begin the next verse. Live music is just another layer to the theater arts experience that Apple Tree is providing these young actors. A live orchestra also accompanies the final show.
Over the course of about three weeks, the students continue to study lines at home and rehearse after school. An even younger crowd of kindergarteners, first graders and second graders join the troupe. Eventually, all students arrive to rehearse in costume. For “Snow White Goes West,” cowboy hats adorn nearly every little head.
Heidi weaves throughout the onstage cast, assisting in choreography. The kids begin to know their place on stage and the next move. Arms waive in unison to match the right lyrics. Prince Joe steps out in his best Elvis stage pose after proposing to the newly awakened Snow White. All is coming together nicely for the final production. The first performance is for the students in the school and then the parents in the evening.
After rehearsal, I asked the cast about their experience with Apple Tree.
“Why do you like acting and being in plays after school?” I asked them.
A few hands go up, then a few more. Suddenly responses erupt one after another: It’s fun, something to look forward to. Many contrasted with what they would be doing otherwise like: long bus rides home, watching YouTube videos on their phones, or just otherwise being unaware of what there is to do after school.
“Raise your hand if being in a play with Apple Tree has inspired you to want to do acting and be involved in theater when you are older?” Hands jump up.
“Raise your hand if you have been out to see a play in a theater.” More hands fly up.
“Do you think that acting has helped you with things you have to do in the regular school day?” This question brought out answers that would make a teacher’s heart melt, such as: It helps because we do presentations, we share out a lot and I can do that easier now.
Nothing but enthusiasm from this group. Here was a group of kids acting, yes. But they were also stepping out into new territory of speaking in front of others, projecting their voices and seeing it’s not so scary after all.
This after-school program is providing the safe atmosphere that supports kids’ brave steps forward.
Apple Tree Productions holds sessions at schools rotating throughout Olympia with students participating for a couple of hours after school, right at their own school, no need to travel. The company also has a seasonal program during summer and spring breaks.