75 Years of Children’s Theatre: More Than Just a Theatre Schoolby Rebecca Anne Clark
/ September 2, 2008
In 1933, Dorothy Davis and Violet
Walters decided that there was a need for a children’s theatre school
in Montreal. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the two
female entrepreneurs were not taken seriously. One critic said he didn’t
think the operation would last more than six months. The school started
out with 25 kids in Davis’ basement but it grew quickly. At its height,
more than 400 children were enrolled at five locations across Montreal.
This year co-directors Erin Downey-Silcoff
and Danusia Lapinski celebrate the theatre’s 75th anniversary. Nowadays,
classes are limited to twelve kids each, and the school has between
50 and 100 children each year, ranging in age from four to 17.
If you think that four is too early for a child to be learning the ins
and outs of acting, you’d be mistaken as many students who started
young have gone on to pursue a career in acting. But, as Downey-Silcoff
emphasizes, “It’s not necessarily about becoming a movie star.”
The Children’s Theatre teaches
life skills through theatre exercises – skills that children will
use regardless of their career path. Both co-directors point to the
benefits gained by children who are enrolled. Self-esteem and confidence
are big ones.
Lapinski says that students see an
improvement in marks at school, and a lot of that comes from improved
confidence. “They’re more likely to raise their hand in class; the
teacher will notice them more,” she says. She also notes that rehearsal
results in improvements in reading skills. All students get a full script,
even the youngest children, and memorizing it forces them to practice
reading. In addition to these, Lapinski talks about other skills that
children develop: self-discipline, self-control, listening, and teamwork.
Extroverts, she says, learn to share the spotlight and become more accommodating
to others. “The introverts usually blossom at the end of the year,”
In the first half of the year, from
October to December, children learn basic theatre skills such as how
to project and manipulate their voices, use their bodies and emote.
Fun techniques such as voice warm-ups, pantomime, and improv games lead
into blocking and character development. To show off their new skills,
including monologues, poetry readings and short skits, they present
a Winter Cabaret in December. In January, students from every class
are given a full-length script for a half-hour-to-hour play that will
be performed in May. These scripts are children’s plays, often fairy
tales with a modern twist. And in keeping with the goal of developing
new skills, the roles are chosen to help individual students develop.
“There might be a child who always
likes to play the princess,” says Lapinski, “but we’ll give her
the role of the wicked witch for a change, and it might help her be
Most plays are put on for an audience
of family and friends, but the performance class – made up of returning
students who want to focus on performance – put on their show at venues
around the community, including schools, hospitals, and seniors’ centres.
Apart from their regular program,
the Children’s Theatre offers classes for children with special needs,
such as autism, and weekend workshops for young-at-heart adults. And
for the first time this year, they will offer classes in French. An
invitation to the francophone population of Montreal, the classes will
also give French immersion children a space to practice their French
after school. “We’ve had French kids coming to our classes
to improve their English,” says Downey-Silcoff. “When we first announced
that we were offering classes in French, we had parents of French immersion
students saying, ‘I’d put my kid in that!’ ”
Lapinski considers its intimacy one
of the special traits of the Children’s Theatre. “We show kids we
love them,” she says. Much as in real theatre, kids develop a bond
with each other and with the instructors. And like the skills they pick
up in theatre school, that bond will be with them for many years to
› For more information, see
MORE THEATRE MILESTONES
Youtheatre, a Montreal-based theatre
company aimed at young people, is celebrating its 40th season this year.
With a focus on stimulating, intelligent theatre, Youtheatre produces
three new plays each year, in both English and French. Shows are for
audiences as young as six and as old as teenagers.