The play’s the thing for kids attending the 333’s Saturday Drama Club. That is, one original play that’s produced — from fresh idea to rehearsal to performance — every Saturday during the gang’s 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. gathering. The 333 refers to the North Winooski Avenue address of Very Merry Theatre (VMT). There, under the direction of teaching artist Trisha Denton, youth 6 years old and up have been dropping by nearly every Saturday for just over a year to get swept up in creative, and at times chaotic, collaboration.
Denton’s club is her answer to VMT executive director Don Wright’s call to promote the space as a safe venue. He wanted kids to be able to show up and know that “there was going to be someone there who would have something to offer them,” says Denton.
A mom who hails from Detroit, Denton is skilled in the circus arts. She offers her young charges an alternative to the kinds of theater education they may receive in school. As the Goddard College grad describes her approach, it focuses less on developing theater chops than on self-expression through performance. “In my school of theater,” she says, “it’s really about getting them out of that cerebral, in-their-head type of thinking and into their bodies and their motions and the sensational way of experiencing something.”
The VMT’s whimsical replica of the Bard’s home boards at the Globe Theatre makes for a great playground, with its trapdoors and nooks and crannies. The day’s participants — there could be just a couple or a couple dozen, Denton says — are free to choose a character, rummage through the costume closet and improvise within the loose parameters Denton sets in a rough script. This she cranks out after her players tell her what they want to do.
On a recent Saturday, it’s a 15-minute play titled “The Possession of the Possessions.” In it, four characters in the 10-member cast achieve immortality when their souls are stored in everyday objects. Thanks to a trio of scientists — two from the future, one from the present — the souls are restored to corporeal form in time to learn valuable life lessons. Some lighting and musical touches add a thin coat of polish to the production, thanks to Denton’s volunteer teen helpers Emma Friend and Ryan Canaday. But if a line is dropped here and there, or an actor hears Denton whisper, “BFB” — code for “big fat booty,” which is in turn code for “your backside is to the audience” — the audience doesn’t seem to mind.
One attendee is Becky Wigglesworth, whose 6-year-old son, Finn Verdonk, is among the performers. The Jericho mom notes that, since Finn has been attending the Saturday sessions, he projects his voice more strongly offstage. She adds that Finn was already a pretty creative kid and fond of acting before he hooked up with the VMT camp last summer, and then with the Saturday Drama Club. The drop-in dimension of Denton’s initiative gives him a chance to connect with new kids while building on his skills.
What’s more, because Finn has a hand in creating the shows in which he stars, he’s invested in them, Wigglesworth says, and adds that her son is quick to solicit her feedback after each play. “There are some stakes here,” she says. “People are watching.”
Even though the plays have small audiences, Denton believes the process of getting to curtain time yields the most important results for her young players. “I want to make sure that everybody’s ideas and input are heard, to give autonomy and empowerment to the kids as creators,” she says. “I don’t make kids walk around in a circle quacking like a duck for no reason.”