In a rehearsal space at Upstart Crow Studios Children’s Theatre, located in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood, the closing bars of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” one of the most popular musical numbers from Disney’s Frozen, crescendos to its finale as children stretch their arms to the ceiling, their voices rising as one. Elsewhere, the building vibrates as scores of children and adults busy themselves in other ways, preparing Frozen Jr., a youth stage adaptation of the hit animated film and Upstart Crow’s fall production.
Founded in 2000, Upstart Crow Studios Children’s Theatre is a nonprofit youth performing arts organization with a mission to provide access to professional arts education to all children. In 2019, Upstart Crow expects to serve more than 500 Lane County families with children ranging from second grade through age 18, putting on a combination of musical theater performances, classes, and camps.
Musical theater is one of the few artistic disciplines that includes all the different art forms, says Upstart Crow’s education director, Jackie Byers: visual art, music, dance, and theater. Byers is also directing and choreographing Frozen Jr.
“Kids don’t always get a chance to create something that people are appreciative of,” she says. Working on a production gives children a sense of agency, the feeling that they can contribute to something bigger than themselves. “Some kids get that through sports,” Byers says. “We have a lot of kids here that don’t do sports. This is where they find their jam.”
Mia Kubu and Jen Henrickson have children in the cast of Frozen Jr. Like Byers mentioned, their children had tried sports with little success. “It was like pushing a wet noodle,” Henrickson says. Instead, both Kubu and Henrickson did an online search for “children’s theater Eugene” and found Upstart Crow.
Kubu liked the depth of what Upstart Crow offers, from live productions to audition training. “All kinds of classes that serve whatever your kid is into,” she says. Her daughter’s first production was Beauty and The Beast a couple of years ago.
“I dropped her off at 8 o’clock in the morning” at the Hult Center, where Upstart Crow occasionally mounts productions, Kubo says. She came home at 10 o’clock at night. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I am so sorry. Are you okay?’” Kubu says. After her daughter responded that it was the best day of her life, “I was like, sweet—we’re in!”
Like Kubu, Henrickson had never seen her daughter light up as much as she did after her fist production at Upstart Crow. “She was thrilled: passionate, engaged, excited,” Henrickson says. “She jumped in with both feet.”
Henrickson also appreciates the inclusive and supportive culture at Upstart Crow. To help foster inclusion, Heidi Knight Megs, Upstart Crow’s artistic director, looks for scripts appropriate for different age groups and different abilities when she plans a season of performances.
Upstart Crow uses inclusive casting: first come, first served auditioning for certain roles, but all comers in the production itself. Frozen Jr., for example, has a place for 82 kids of all different skill levels and abilities. Cast members switch roles from one performance to the next. “They have to learn many different pieces to make the puzzle fit together,” Byers says.
Knight Megs says children involved in these productions learn the technical aspects of live theater, as you might expect, but they also learn valuable life skills, like public speaking, empathy, the ability to think on their feet, and appreciation for the other people they’re working with. “When they get up there, it’s their show,” she says. “It gives kids the sense they can really contribute something.”
“Everyone should try theater at some point in their life.,” Byers continues. “Most of these kids are coming here because their parents are seeing they have a need that isn’t being met.” Maybe the first time they’re onstage, they’re hiding behind another kid, Byers says. “Six months later, they’re the lead role because they’ve completely come into their own.”
Danielle Foreman-Smith and Brady Rust are both in eighth grade and in the ensemble of Frozen Jr. “I like bringing out emotion,” Foreman-Smith says, describing her experience of performing onstage, adding, “To let yourself free for once, to do what I love.”
“It’s been really fun to be onstage and see that you’re making the audience laugh and be happy,” Rust says. “It’s fun to come together as a group and put on a show.”
Both Foreman-Smith and Rust encourage other kids to try Upstart Crow. “Definitely come here, it’s great,” Foreman-Smith says. “It feels like family. Everyone’s so nice to each other. I’ve made some great friends.”
Upstart Crow Studios, 855 W 1st Ave., #1, 541/688-8260, upstartcrowstudios.org