About three years ago, the idea of producing children’s theater performances in Barrington was just taking shape in the minds of Dena Davis and Kim Durkin.
Next weekend, Davis and Durkin will see “Bugsy Malone Jr.” debut on the high school stage as the eighth performance produced by Arts Alive! of Barrington – the nonprofit theater company they formed for children in the elementary schools.
By most measures, Arts Alive! -- working closely with PTOs and 100 volunteers from Barrington’s four elementary schools -- is a success that is serving as a feeder program for future high school performances while introducing theater to pre-teen children.
“We’re offering a real theater experience at a very young age,” said Durkin.
“The rewards are so huge for the theater arts in Barrington,” said Davis. “It’s why we put in such ridiculous hours.”
Davis is a former actress. Durkin is a former movie costume designer. They seem to complement each other well with children from first to fifth grade in Barrington getting their first chance to perform like in no other community in this region – perhaps even New England.
Neither Davis nor Durkin could think of another theater program quite like Arts Alive! And it is “a win-win situation” for the PTOs as well, said Durkin. They receive funding from the proceeds of each show.
“Bugsy Malone Jr.” might be the theater company’s most ambitious show to date. You might be familiar with the movie of the same name. It’s a parody of 1920s gangsters in the Prohibition Era in America with 123 Hampden Meadows School fourth- and fifth-graders playing adults roles and wearing adult costumes – albeit scaled down to size.
“I’ve got 300 costumes in my living room right now,” said Durkin.
Many of the costumes started off as adult sizes but have been altered by six volunteer sewers, she said. A wine-and-cheese party a few days ago was highlighted by sewing names of cast members in each piece of clothing.
“I have to know whose bowtie that is if it’s on the floor,” said Durkin. “We don’t have time to do that during a show.”
“Bugsy Malone Jr.” is their first show with live music – a jazz band of high school students led by professional jazz musician John McKenna of Barrington.
The show also is benefitting from Barrington artist Boris Bally and his daughter, Aila, who came up with the idea for the “splurgers” – the silly string and foam-shooting weapons that take the place of guns in the show.
“They look a little like the Tommy-guns of that era, with cupcakes on top,” Davis said. But anyone shot with a “splurger” simply is silenced for a while. No one dies. You’ll just see them kind of moping around the stage.
Moping is not a word Davis or Durkin use for the show though. It is providing plenty of fun, great music, period costumes and a history lesson for the cast.
“They’re learning all about that era,” said Davis, who has been teaching theater for 17 years after leaving her career as an actress in the United Kingdom.
Arts Alive! is hardly out of the woods yet, though, said Davis and Durkin. It has donated storage space in the Samsonite building in Warren. But there are serious needs down the road for rehearsal and performance space; financial support; and technical equipment, like wireless mics.
“It costs us a lot of money to rent them for each show,” said Durkin of the mics.
“We make do with hallways at the high school for dressing areas because there are no rooms or backstage area,” Davis said. “And everyone has to enter stage left because there is no stage right.”
Arts Alive! has a board of directors that is creating a strategic plan for the nonprofit, which sees a move into the middle school as a goal. But right now, the shows will again involve just the elementary schools next year.
“We need to get past ‘Bugsy’ and then we’ll finalize all the shows for next year,” said Davis.
Check out the Arts Alive! website for more information on a children’s theater company that appears capable of putting Barrington on the map for theater arts in the years to come.