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Cultivating kids' creativity
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It’s a Friday morning in late June in the small, north central Iowa town of Osage. Overcast skies and a slight breeze are keeping at bay the stifling temperatures felt earlier in the week. It’s quiet, save for the occasional car purring down the road and songbirds greeting the new day. A few blocks south of the business district, a little magic is brewing inside a community recreation center called the Cedar River Complex.
Rather than summoning spells or conjuring jinxes, Theresa Augsburger is attempting to secure the attention of two dozen schoolchildren, who range in age from 5 to 11 and are busily chatting with each other.
“Hocus pocus!” she calls out loudly, hands cupped to her mouth.
“Focus!” the children cry in response. They form a large circle and sit down cross-legged on a stage inside the new facility’s 600-seat auditorium, eager to hear what creative wonders are in store for them that day.
The kids are nearing the end of a two-week session in the Osage Summer Theatre Program (OSTP), a K-12 day camp designed and run by three University of Iowa theatre arts graduates. After some group warm-up exercises and a review of program rules, Augsburger (B.A. ’11) announces that the young participants are to get into costume for dress rehearsals of the group’s two weekend productions: Fish Tales and Sending Solar Flares, short plays written by the kids. A reminder about the post-rehearsal pizza party is met with robust applause and enthusiastic whoops. The kids then file out stage left to prepare.
Behind the scenes
“Our goal is to create a safe environment in which the kids feel comfortable expressing themselves,” says Augsburger, about the program she cofounded in 2011 with Maggie Jones (B.A. ’11) and Maggie Blake (B.A. ’12). “As adults, we tend to stifle creativity. We forget how to play. Not only can theater work be fun, it can help instill confidence and teach kids how to work together. They also learn skills such as vocal projection.”
Participants in the Osage Summer Theatre Program get into costume before a dress rehearsal. Photos by Tom Jorgensen.
The two-week session held in June is for grades K-5, while a two-week session in July is geared toward grades 6-12. Participants meet every day to learn about various aspects of theater and develop an original production, and then each session culminates in community performances at the Cedar River Complex, a building that opened in 2010. Forty-four area children signed up for OSTP in 2012, almost double the enrollment of the previous year.
“Nearly all the kids came back, too, except for a few who moved away,” says Augsburger. “The Osage community has been so supportive of our efforts—we haven’t had one negative comment. They’d actually like to see us to start a community theater group.”
Neither Augsburger nor Blake had been to Osage before starting the theater program—Augsburger is a Wisconsin native living in Minneapolis, while Blake hails from Kansas City and has plans to move to Los Angeles—but Jones was born and raised in Osage.
Growing up in the Mitchell County seat of 3,600 where, Jones says, there is a healthy emphasis on athletics, she felt a void.
“In high school, we did plays once in a while, but we didn’t have theater programming,” recalls Jones, who says her career ambitions became clear after the thrill she experienced performing one line as Little Miss Muffet during a third-grade choir concert. “I would have loved OSTP when I was younger, so that’s why I did it.”
Setting the stage
The idea for OSTP took root when Jones was taking a grant-writing course at Iowa. For a class project, she planned a hypothetical not-for-profit, after-school theater program in her hometown. The children would learn about everything from playwriting, acting, and stage management to lighting, set design, and even marketing.
Boosted by encouragement from her professor and an “exciting” conversation about the possibilities for such a program with friends Augsburger and Blake, Jones reworked the project into what she felt would be a more manageable summer program, and the three became partners in the endeavor.
Osage Summer Theatre Program cofounders Theresa Augsburger and Maggie Blake, both UI graduates, review production details.
The immediate support they received from the City of Osage and its Park and Recreation Department was key, they say, as it helped with insurance costs and auditorium rental. The women also won a $1,000 business development prize from the university’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, and have earned additional funding from a variety of sources, including Osage community members and businesses and a site on Kickstarter.com.
“I hadn’t considered teaching, but after the three of us talked about this project, the stars just aligned. I have loved working with the kids, and I have learned so much—fundraising and grant writing, marketing, and how to talk to businesses,” says Blake. “It’s been an amazing experience for me.”
Things have gone well enough for the trio that they were able to enlist this year two interns who assist in curriculum development and group exercises: Adam Phillips, a UI sophomore from Osage who is majoring in theatre arts, and Amber Foster, a recent UI graduate from Camanche, Iowa, who studied elementary education and theatre arts.
“This experience has joined the two things I really love,” says Foster, who plans to teach in the Minneapolis area. “I was shy as a child, and theater helped me out of my shell. When I was student teaching, I introduced elements of theater to the kids, and I saw how freeing it was for them. It is such an important teaching tool. They learn so much about interacting together and listening to each other.”
Indeed, says Blake, some of the OSTP participants clearly have benefited from the focus on group dynamics. “There was a boy last year who wouldn’t say his name out loud. He’s back this summer, speaking and engaging with the others. He’s made huge strides.”
The next act
Del Gast, park and recreation director for the City of Osage, attended the June performance and says the program is a good fit for the community.
“It serves two purposes: it’s good for the kids, especially in light of program cuts in the schools, and it keeps the building occupied,” he says. “And it’s something that can expand.”
That’s what OSTP organizers are banking on. With Jones, Blake, and Augsburger just out of college, their schedules have proved flexible enough to run the program each summer, but their hope is that it eventually can become a community project, perhaps with the addition of a classroom component in the local schools. As it was, Jones had to contribute remotely this summer from New York, where she recently began work as a development assistant for the Public Theater—an opportunity she credits to her experience with OSTP.
For Augsburger, working on OSTP has fortified her self-confidence.
“In retrospect, it seems kind of crazy to come live here in Osage for six weeks each year. I knew hardly anything about administering a program like this, but we saw a need that we could fill, and we came here and did it. I’ve learned so much along the way,” she says. “With the right passion, focus, and support, one is capable of doing anything.”
For more information about the Osage Summer Theatre Program, see www.osagesummertheatre.org.