“All kids can do theater.” That’s the motto of Ann O’Grady, executive director of the Rhode Island Youth Theatre.
With one show down and two to go, the 2018 RIYT summer season is in full swing.
As a theatre that has provided affordable drama and theater opportunities to young people in the Ocean State since 1987, RIYT is determined to make its 31st year of production as inclusive and fulfilling as ever.
The latest upcoming show, a two-hour performance of “The Little Mermaid,” will be held at the Park Theatre, located at 848 Park Ave. in Cranston. Featuring 72 students and a full orchestra, two performances of the play will be held; one on Friday, Aug. 3 at 10 a.m., and one on Saturday, Aug. 8 at 7 p.m.
“It’s so great to see the program inspiring kids to follow their dreams,” said Melissa Hayes, who will be starring as the titular mermaid Ariel in the upcoming performances.
As a member of the RIYT program for four years, she spoke enthusiastically of the positive impact the program has had on children who participate in shows put on by the theatre.
Melissa wasn’t the only one with a statement to give.
“The cast is like a second family,” said Robert Baxter, who will portray Prince Eric’s advisor Grimsby in the upcoming play. “Seeing the play come together at the end is my favorite part,” he added, as a member of the program for five years.
Several returning students of the program, such as Rebecca Shay and Brady Cardone, explained that the program allows them to make new friends and reunite with them again at every show. Meanwhile, Alex Davis, who is participating in his first show with RIYT, says he appreciates that the program gives kids an activity to do over the summer.
The first play of the summer season, a production of “Mary Poppins Jr.,” was held at the Prout School on both July 20 and July 21.
The theatre’s third play of the summer season, a production of “Shrek Jr.,” will be held at the Park Theater on Friday, Aug. 17 and Saturday, Aug. 18. Three performances will be held; two at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on the 17th, and one at 7 p.m. on the 18th. About sixty students are expected to participate in the play, as the program is still open to registrants at the time of this writing.
According to O’Grady, students from all over the state get involved with the program each season, with 15 percent of participants receiving some form of financial aid. Just for the 2018 summer season, over $10,000 was provided to students in the form of full scholarships and family discounts. The program is open to all students ages 7-15, with a $450 registration fee for each show due by the first audition or rehearsal. Prior experience with drama or theater is not required for participation. Some students participating in the program come from as far as Massachusetts.
According to O’Grady, a big part of RIYT’s mission is dedicating as much care and attention to detail as possible when it comes to set design, costumes and the overall experience in order to give every student a feel for what it’s like to perform in a professional theater environment.
The theater performs up to 10 plays annually, with a budget typically around $200,000 to $250,000 every year. Alumni and parents contribute donations to the theatre’s campaign for funding each year. Businesses are also able to purchase advertising space in each show’s program, which contributes to funding for future RIYT performances.
In the meantime, the theatre also provides support to the drama programs of local schools during the academic year. As a former drama teacher herself, O’Grady understands the financial struggles of managing such programs, and the amount of effort expended by drama teachers who stay after-hours to run theater programs after a long day of teaching. RIYT rents sets, costumes and sound equipment at a low cost to local after-school theater programs, and typically helps one or two schools begin a new program each year.
It is more cost effective, as well as less time consuming, to simply rent existing sets and costumes from local theater groups rather than have them created from scratch.
This year, a new “pilot program” has also debuted at RIYT, with the goal of educating aspiring theater teachers from across the state that wish to teach drama in their own schools. Two teachers from Providence and Pawtucket are currently enrolled in this program. O’Grady states that it is a “delight to work with such incredible teachers.”
Blocks of performance tickets are regularly donated to organizations that serve at-risk or otherwise financially struggling youth, such as community organizations, agencies working with DCYF and organizations servicing families with foster children. In addition to those free tickets, large group discounts amounting to $5 a ticket are also provided to local youth and recreational organizations.
Any organization interested in receiving free tickets is welcome to contact Ann O’Grady by phone at 447-0458, or by email at ann@RIYT.org.
The cost of providing these free and discounted tickets is difficult to determine. “It depends on how many [people] come to the shows,” wrote O’Grady. “I don’t really think of it as an expense. It’s what we do,” she added.
RIYT also makes every effort to include students with mental and physical disabilities in the program, according to Norma Malachowski, who serves as camp manager for the summer program.
“We want to involve everyone and allow any child to participate,” said Malachowski. “Our program is very diverse.”
She also mentioned how enjoyable it is to see how excited the children become when they greet their old friends at the start of each show, and how much they bond over the course of each performance.
Tickets are available at the door preceding each performance, at the Park Theatre during weekdays and they can be preordered at the RIYT website. As for The Little Mermaid, tickets for the Aug. 3 show will cost $10. Tickets for the Aug. 8 show will be $18 at the door, but will be available at a reduced price of $15 if ordered in advance at www.RIYT.com.