OTIS -- Collin O'Brien caught the acting bug at the Farmington River Regional Elementary School.
The fifth-grader says he enjoys being on stage thanks to Farmington River's two-year-old after-school drama program.
"I used to be shy about play-acting. Now I have solos," the 10-year-old said.
This weekend, Collin will portray Rooster in "Annie Jr.," the children's adaptation of the musical "Annie" based on the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie." He is one of 54 students in grades 2 through 6 -- more than 70 percent of the kids in those grades -- involved in the spring production scheduled for Friday and Saturday nights at the school.
Last year, Farmington River began the drama program to help youngsters express themselves and learn about theater, according to Meredith McMIllan, assistant director and choreographer for "Annie Jr."
"It's so good to get the students on stage," she said. "It opens so many more doors for them, giving them the confidence and boost they need."
Besides acting, the show and program's director, Kim Chirichella, feels it's important students work off-stage on lighting, set work, the music and other behind-the-scenes activities.
"I really like to have the kids run the show," said Chirichella, a 30-year veteran of youth theater in the Northeast.
Chirichella noted that the parents, school staff and the community have supported the drama program. A grant from the Otis Cultural Council is helping defray the cost of staging this weekend's show.
After weeks of preparation, the cast and crew this week have had intense dress rehearsals to ensure everything goes smoothly on opening night.
"Practice, practice, practice, and more practice -- that's what we need," said Makenna Albee, the 9-year-old who plays Annie.
Aside from knowing lines and the musical numbers, cast members are learning to stay focused just prior to entering a scene.
"The hardest thing is remembering where to put [props] before you go on stage," said sixth-grader Haley Couch.
The youth theater program is also part social gathering, allowing the youngsters to strengthen existing friendships and start new ones.
"It's great being with friends after school," said Kyle Hawley, a sixth-grader who plays Daddy Warbucks. "One time, we stayed until 7:30 to eat dinner."
As for stage fright, the phrase isn't part of Issy McNair's vocabulary.
"I like getting up on stage before my family and friends; if I miss a line, nobody is going to know anyway," said the 10-year-old cast as Miss Hannigan.
Farmington River's theater program has also encouraged some students to seek small parts in local summer stock theater, professional experience they feel has helped their performances on the school's stage.
Tangi Gauthier, the 11-year-old playing Lily, expects acting is in her blood for good.
"I'm going to keep doing it until I'm famous," she said.
If you go ...
What: Student production of "Annie Jr."
Cost: Suggested $5 donation at the door.
When: Friday and Saturday shows at 7 p.m.
Where: Farmington River Regional Elementary School, Route 8, Otis.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233.