The Greatness of Youth

Img 775For the last four summers, Class Act Productions (CAP) in Altoona has presented their Shakespeare in the Park series. Young people perform a Shakespeare classic outdoors in Haines Park, and get to experience the works of the Bard. For many of them, it's their first exposure to these great plays, and this year CAP is performing Twelfth Night, beginning August 3rd.

"We have 12 kids in the cast for Twelfth Night, ranging in age from 12 to 18," says director Jolene Gentzler. "Half of them are Shakespeare 'veterans' and half of them are new to the program this year, and we hope that they will all continue to return year after year. We see a huge growth from the kids between their first and second year of Shakespeare, not only in their reading and understanding of the material, but in their stage presence and confidence as well."

"The initial impetus for the program grew out of the SummerCAmP program about 6 or 7 years ago. Antigone and Twelfth Night were produced as one-week camps and the response was overwhelmingly positive, which sparked board conversation about turning it into a fully realized stage production and the rest, as they say, is history...."


Some Are Born Great


I asked Jolene to give a broader overview of CAP and all their activities.  "CAP does 3 mainstage productions every year, which feature 24-28 kids between the ages of 7-16," says Jolene. "In addition to the mainstage shows, CAP also has a Lunch-N-Laugh series which normally features adult actors but is a shorter show, usually around 60 minutes, that is geared toward families and those with younger children. The goal of the Lunch-N-Laugh program is to introduce theatre to children who are not yet old enough to perform in our mainstage productions."

"We also offer MadCAP Improv once a month, which is an improvisation workshop for kids in grades 6-12 and summer camps for kids in grades K-12. And of course, there is our Shakespeare in the Park series for actors between ages 12-21."

"Everything we strive for we state as passionately as possible in our Belief Statement:  We believe all children have a right to understand the world around them and their place in it. We believe all children have a voice to be heard and an idea to offer. We challenge your children to be confident, expressive, and genuine. We just happen to do children's theatre."


Some Achieve Greatness


As far as the Shakespeare in the Park series (and, specifically, the upcoming production of Twelfth Night), the obvious question is how to approach the material, especially considering it's the first time for many to attempt this kind of work. With the program now in its fourth year, CAP and Jolene have developed a way.

"The first thing we always say is in order to tell the story, you have to understand the story. From that point on, we break the story down to its essential elements, characters, and relationships. Once they understand the character and relationships, they are primed to be able to tell the story in the Bard's language."

"By this point, the only thing that the cast is missing is the technical understanding of the prose, and for that we utilize SparkNotes No Fear Shakespeare to help make the language more accessible. The cast is always full of questions about the material, so we have a lot of discussions during rehearsals about what motivates their characters and how that drives the story forward. We also do a lot of games and exercises to encourage the kids to have fun and enjoy the process."

"We have watched a lot of young actors grow up through the years. It is amazing to see their growth until they master their confidence and story-telling abilities on stage. We also see the same things with the kids who have grown up doing improv through the MadCAP program. They are more apt to reach for teamwork, confident in public speaking situations, and look forward to the opportunity to think on their feet."


Greatness Thrust Upon Them


CAP has continually grown, both in participant numbers amongst the kids involved, and also in their attendance numbers for the various shows. In addition to the youth programs, they also hold two events each year for "older" patrons, those 21 years and up, which are murder-mystery fundraisers. They are original, audience-interactive improv shows with dinner.

I asked about the growth of CAP, and what lies on the horizon for the group. Wisely, current Board President Larry Mahlstedt is both optimistic and considered in his thoughts. "There has always been talk about growing out of this space into a bigger space or adding another mainstage show. It is a balancing act of not stretching your financial abilities and the time and talents of our completely volunteer board. It has taken ten years for CAP to sell out an entire run for a production [the recently completed Annie Jr.]. Right now we have a comfortability in this space for the actors and the parents/audience. But we are always striving to increase the opportunities for our young actors."

Cautious growth is still growth, however. It just depends on how you approach it. Jolene explains, "The community has always been very welcoming and supportive of our mission and programming. If we could think of a way that CAP and the community of Altoona could help one another to a greater degree, it would be increased awareness of the opportunities we offer and helping to spread that message to all families of the area."

"Some of the ways that we currently do this is through our Shakespeare in the Park series, advertising our productions in the Altoona Herald, our participation in the Southeast Pold parade each September, and, for the first time this year, maintaining a booth at the Des Moines Arts Festival."


CAP really is, as their full name implies, a Class Act Production. With significant community involvement, dedication to their stated beliefs, and constantly providing a wide variety of opportunities to youth of all ages, CAP is a wonderful and worthy addition to the metro arts scene. And hopefully, one more success will be added to their lengthy list with Twelfth Night this coming weekend. 

Jolene adds, "Our audiences for Shakespeare have also grown every year and we are hoping to see this trend continue. With a little cooperation from Mother Nature, we hope to encourage families to come out and enjoy a fun and lively production. They my even discover an appreciation for the Bard!"


Twelfth Night is presented by Class Act Productions - Altoona on August 3-6. Shows are at Haines Park in Altoona, and tickets are available through the website. 

Class Act Productions Twelfth Night Jolene Gentzler