Most actors can attest to the rush of adrenaline they feel standing backstage listening to the murmur of the audience while waiting for the curtain to rise, but with Storyland Theatre, there’s even more excitement in the air.
The audience is almost entirely children, and their energy fuels performers.
“In the early days, Barbara (Feldman, executive director) would do the lights, and I’d pull the curtain. I loved seeing their faces,” said Georgia Cunningham, the children’s theater troupe’s resident choreographer and one of four founding board members who still serve on the board.
On Oct. 23, the curtain will open on the company’s 25th season, and actors will take the stage for Beware What You Ask of a Fairy, the same show Storyland made its debut with. And once again, children’s eyes still light up when the performers take the stage.
For many area children, Storyland Theatre represents their first experience with live theater.
“Some of them don’t understand live performances,” said Carly Gilchrist, a second-grade teacher at Craig-Houghton Elementary School, who has taken her pupils to see Storyland. “They don’t realize those people performing are real.”
Providing quality theater for children was the driving force behind Feldman’s creation of the group more than two decades ago. She and her husband, Jack, had performed with the Augusta Players and Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre, but those shows were mainly targeted at adults, according to Feldman.
A traveling children’s company had come to Augusta, so Feldman took her daughter, Nancy, who was in preschool at the time. The quality of the show was so poor Feldman felt she had to do something.
Little did she realize that she would still be at it a quarter-century later.
“I don’t think any of us thought about it. We knew there was a need, and we wanted children to come,” she said.
IN MANY WAYS, Storyland has come full-circle.
Cunningham brought her grandchildren to see Storyland and now she brings her great-grandchildren. Also, some of its performers grew up on Storyland.
Lacie Carmichael will be performing in The Frog Prince, which will be Jan. 29-Feb. 2. She’s participated in several shows in the past seven years, including Beware What You Ask of a Fairy, Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk.
She attended performances of Storyland when she was a pupil at Brookwood Elementary School.
“I don’t remember which shows we went to, but I remember the curtain coming up and the excitement,” she said. “I thought how neat it was they were doing that, and what a cool job it must be.”
After two decades, Feldman said she often encounters people who attended Storyland as a child and now take their own children to see performances.
Storyland’s plays are all original works. Many are based on popular fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel.
Some are unique creations such as The Courtship of Senorita Florabella and Beware What You Ask of a Fairy. Many are written by Rick Davis, and many are musicals.
Since 1988, nearly 500,000 people have attended Storyland Theatre performances. Feldman applies for grants to make attending shows at the Imperial affordable. Tickets are $4.50 per student for the field trip performances during the school week. Saturday matinees are $6 per person with military families receiving free admission with valid identification. Depending on the socio-economic level of the school, many children pay less to attend. According to Feldman, 63 percent of those who attended last season did so at a free or reduced rate.
Last year, more than 23,000 children and their adult chaperones attended Storyland performances. Storyland performs each of its three productions 12 times for school audiences and has one Saturday matinee.
“This is the best-kept secret in Augusta,” said Austin Rhodes, who has performed in at least two shows per season for about a decade and serves on Storyland’s board of directors. He took over many of the roles performed by the late Matt Stovall. “It’s only one testament to Storyland’s success – how many people we reach.”
Giving back has long been a mantra of Storyland. Until 2005, shows were held at Augusta State University’s Maxwell Performing Arts Theater through partnerships with the Department of Languages and Literature and the Department of Fine Arts. Storyland donated $85,000 in college scholarships to ASU students during that time.
Feldman said she looks forward to continuing Storyland for years to come.
Beware What You Ask of a Fairy will open the season Oct. 23. School performances will be at 9:30 and 10:45 a.m., and 12:15 p.m. Oct. 23-26. The Saturday matinee will be at 3 p.m. Oct. 27. Reservations are required for school groups but not for the matinee. Call (706) 736-3455 for reservations or for more details, see storylandtheatre.org.