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Shepherdstown youth theater: Playing pretend with geniuses

October 11, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY | chrisc@herald-mail.com
  • Devan Whitacre, left, director of Young Actors Theater Lab in Shepherdstown, W.Va., works with Rudy Bakin, center, and Kyle Perrin during rehearsal for "A Princely Predicament," opening Friday, Oct. 12.
By Laura Bakin

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Devan Whitacre is the rare individual who gets to do for work what he loves. As director of Young Actors Theater Lab in Shepherdstown, he is responsible for leading workshops and preparing productions featuring child and teen actors in the Eastern Panhandle.

This job is a dream for Whitacre, 23, who has been involved in theater for almost two decades. But the real joy for him is working with the kids.

“They’re geniuses. Their hopes and dreams haven’t been squashed yet. They’re willing to share, be bold,” Whitacre said. “You don’t want to shut them down. You cultivate what they have going on in their brains. They want to share, and they’re as much dreamers as (adults) are.”

Whitacre and his young actors are preparing to open their next production, “A Princely Predicament,” this weekend. A cast of about 20 actors will tell the story of a prince who must travel the world to find the perfect princess.

The play was written by Whitacre. He spoke recently about himself and the play, sitting on the edge of the stage of Full Circle Theater Company, the community theater group that hosts YATL.

“It’s a conglomeration of fairy tales. Not really very old fairy tales, but fairy tales that are unique and yet familiar,” he said. “It’s kind of a spoof on the whole genre, but still staying true and having heart. It’s pretty funny.”

The main character is a prince whose father tells him he must find a princess to marry so the king will have a success to the throne. The prince goes on a quest to find a suitable princess, visiting different regions of the world. Traveling with him are two friends — a sarcastic minstrel and a tadpole who hasn’t yet fully developed into a frog.

The cast came together not just to perform the play, but to improve their theater skills.

“We actually do a production workshop,” Whitacre said. “It’s not all about just putting on a production. It’s not just about doing rehearsals. We sprinkle workshops throughout, and we have other (teachers) come in, so they’re not tired of seeing my face.”

Part of producing a show is making sets, props and costumes; learning to design and apply makeup; learning how to augment action and mood with music, sound effects and lighting. Parents help with some of this, but kids learn all of it during the weeks-long production workshop.

“That’s actually one of the theater’s goals, getting (kids) to fill in other spots,” Whitacre said. “It’s hard, because you want to be like, ‘The sound needs to be doing THIS, and I know how to do it!’ It’s hard, but exciting too. Because I already see who’s a director, who’s an actor, who’s a producer.”

Whitacre loves working with kids. But he bristles at the idea that children’s theater somehow is of less value than “grown-up” theater.

“That is wrong. That is another one of our purposes here — to destroy that belief, because it is not true,” he said. “In fact, I believe that you get a fresher version of creativity (from kids).”

Whitacre knows firsthand about the way theater can help a person grow.

“I’ve been doing theater since I was 6. Before that, I was the most shy human being you could meet,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe, but I’m an introvert. Kind of funny that way, but Mom put me in theater and changed my life. I like that I can give back.”

He grew up in the Charles Town, W.Va., area, the second of four kids. After a couple weeks in kindergarten, Whitacre’s mother home schooled him.

“I was a very good homeschool fit, because I was allowed to learn in my own way,” he said. “Mom was incredibly creative, and would help us learn and thrive more. I think that’s why I was able to do theater so well.”

Whitacre attended a discipleship course at a California college, but he had to stop.

“I got pulled out of that financially. I was really confused about that, but I thought there had to be reasons for it. If I hadn’t been pulled out of that, I wouldn’t be involved in this theater as deeply as I am.”

Full Circle Theater director Laura Bakin had acted in several local productions with Whitacre, and she asked him to help her with a production of “Seussical Jr.,” a play based on Dr. Seuss stories. He helped, and discovered he had a gift for working with kids and their creativity.

But Whitacre knows the importance of balance. He gives his students freedom to explore, express and experiment, but he also provides guidelines. Finding that balance is not always easy.

“You have to set the rules, and you have to keep the rules. But sometimes you sound very mean,” he said. “Sometimes I think, ‘I can’t believe this is coming out of my mouth. Why did I say that? They are never coming back.’ But sometimes, the kids I’ve corrected, they produced the most fruit.”

Whitacre said he’s learned that kids can thrive when given opportunity. Some kids, he said, just need to be nudged or invited to try something new. Again, it’s a balance.

“You have to recognize where the potential is and be patient. There are some kids who will be very quiet,” he said. “But sometimes I’ll give them a role I know they won’t necessarily do their best at yet, but they will gain boldness for another role in the future. And If I don’t ever give them that opportunity, they’ll never thrive.”

Recently, Whitacre demanded boldness of the entire cast. He had a lot of set construction to do, so he told the kids to run the entire show as if he were gone. Handle sets and props and lines and everything — including mistakes — on their own, while Whitacre built items for the play.

“I told the kids, ‘Be prepared to fail,’ and I stepped back. I was there in the room, but they didn’t talk to me because I told them not to. And they did excellent,” he said. “They failed, but then they improvised. And I was so proud. I was just beaming all night long. I was like ‘Yes! They’re failing!’ Because I don’t want them to be afraid of failure.”

The real joy for Whitacre was the kids’ professionalism on stage.

“If I had not known, I never would have noticed,” he said. “They didn’t show it in their faces. They didn’t show it in the way they spoke. They just kept going.”

And that’s what makes this job so fulfilling for Whitacre. He’s working with kids, nurturing their self-expression and changing their lives.

“I never get sick of doing this. Ever. Even if I come in tired,” Whitacre said with a smile. “Because I come in and I get to play pretend with all of my good friends who also want to play pretend. It’s wonderful.”


If you go ...       

WHAT: “A Princely Predicament”

WHEN: 7 p.m. Fridays, Oct. 12 and 19; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Oct. 13 and 20, and Sundays, Oct. 14 and 21.

WHERE: Full Circle Theater, 113 S. Princess St., Shepherdstown, W.Va.

COST: Tickets cost $8.

CONTACT: Go to www.myyatl.com

MORE: In this original play, presented by Young Actors Theater Lab and written by YATL director Devan Whitacre, a prince must travel the world to find the perfect princess.  




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