For the past two months, I’ve been working with Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth on their show “The Jungle Book”. BAAY (www.baay.org) is a modestly-proportioned children’s theatre. It’s wedged in the corner of a downtown building that I had never thought to enter before. Inside, it is a whirlwind. At any given time, something different might be happening in each room—from dance company rehearsals to three different shows at once to choir to preschool to arts classes—all taking place amid the posters of old shows, piles of cardboard props and set pieces, walls full of past BAAY cast members’ reminiscences, and a darling friendly dog named Simba.
But all this is not the most astonishing part of BAAY. The most incredible part took me two months to fully comprehend, even though I now see I had a sense of it even on the first day. It’s the culture of positivity that David, Lisa, and all the rest of the staff have fostered. It’s the little miracles that happen every day between people.
During auditions, an auditionee raised her hand. Instead of asking a question, she proceeded to tell the group how auditioning was not something to be scared of, how the directors and other kids were not there to judge you, and how even if something went wrong it was not the end of the world! I’ve since heard many kids chime in with what they’ve learned from past shows—be it how to overcome stage fright, how to behave backstage, how to take notes from the director, or what to say if you’re asked to change something in rehearsal (“OK, Lisa!!!”).
Everyone is eager to help and do. All a staff member has to do is say “Who wants to...” and about 10 hands go up in the air. (“...take out the garbage?!?”) The kids came in the first week already working on their lyrics. Some took the time to map out where the breaks were in their song, or analyze how the original performer had sung it. I discussed with one cast member how it would be funny to have velcro bananas as props, and by the end of rehearsal found out that she and her dad were now planning to make a full banana tree! And when I sat down with my troupe of vultures (you’ve seen the Jungle Book, right?), ALL they could talk about was “Do we get to have British accents? I thought Lisa said we can do British accents! Evan, can we say our lines in a British accent???” (All this is said in their adorably quirky Austro-British-German-Southern accent mash).
I’ve seen more encouragement per capita at BAAY than I saw anywhere growing up! (I'm honestly quite sad it wasn't around when I was that age.) The first time I worked with the vultures, one of them said “But there’s just one problem...I can’t sing!” I barely had a chance to tell her that I was sure that wasn’t true; everyone could sing. Instead, I was drowned out by seven other kids telling her that she could; it wasn’t true; everyone could sing! (Which they then boisterously demonstrated.) There was no room for anything but the belief that she COULD sing, and now here it is tech week, and...she’s doing it! That kind of support for those in doubt, and comfort for those feeling down is commonplace.
Occasionally, I’ve heard conversations start up that sounded like gossip. Never anything terrible, but sometimes an offhand comment about another cast member who’s not present, or something that went badly in rehearsal. And every time, I've seen other cast members shut it down—with “That’s not very nice” or “Hey, no, it was fine!” or a quick change of subject. And those are the people who are listened to, because they are the leaders at BAAY, who have the courage to speak their mind.
The kids at BAAY are clearly courageous, and unafraid to tell you what they think, and to throw themselves into what they do. Yes, this can be frustrating sometimes, when everyone is so passionate about the show in so many different ways that we can’t focus on getting a single task accomplished. But...when it comes down to it, that seems like a good problem to have. I’d rather a group of kids who care too much than a group of kids who don’t care.
And boy, do they care! I have just been overwhelmed with love. One boy, starting from the first rehearsal (maybe it was even auditions!), took to coming up and thanking me whenever I worked with the group. As I got to know the cast, they started yelling my name when they saw me, and yelling goodbye as I left—I think this is a sign of approval among kids. They tell me random stories and minor events of their lives (“I colored this goldfish with strawberry marker, and now it smells like coconut oil!”); they complement me (“Pssst! Evan! I like your haircut!”)—recently I was forbidden from going up the stairs without a hug! Children may have inhibitions that they grow out of as they progress toward adulthood, but I think there are a good many more inhibitions that we grow *in*to. There are so many wonderful, zany, idealistic, enthusiastic, fabulous things I’ve seen among the kids at BAAY that I would never see in the adult world. And I’m more than a bit sad about this. We box ourselves in. Places like BAAY try to create future adults who won’t let themselves be contained.
I'll let you in on a secret: I think they're succeeding. I've known a few BAAY grads, just far enough younger than me to get in on what I was too old to participate in. They're some of the most effective, responsible, go-getting people I know! I can't wait to see what this generation of BAAY kids does with the gifts they've been given. They have no idea what they are receiving within these autographed, whirlwind walls. I hope they carry their culture of positivity out into the world.
If you’d like to see the show, we have one more weekend. We’ll be performing on Fri the 27th at 7, Sat the 28th at 2 and 7, and Sun the 29th at 2. You can buy tickets at the door or at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1387888.