PITTSFIELD — If Barrington Stage Company leaders want to attract younger, more diverse audiences, then they have to meet and teach youth what theater is all about.
So this winter the BSC education team, led by director Jane O'Leary, has taken the plunge into working with one of the youngest and most challenging age groups yet: 4- to 6-year-olds.
"We even have a 3-year-old who wanted to participate," said O'Leary in her department's new home at the Wolfson Theatre Center on North Street. "It's about engaging them where they are and where their interests are."
On the second floor of the Wolfson Center, there's a rehearsal and performance studio where the 14 participants of the pilot Kids Act Jr. program met over the course of six Saturday mornings. On March 2, their rehearsals culminated in a pirate-themed musical adventure, under the direction of O'Leary, with musical direction by Cindy Gutter and on-stage direction by education fellow Natalie Boles and program associate Isabel Costa.
Prior to the debut of their high-seas singalong, O'Leary asked the children what their favorite parts of the Kids Act Jr. group had been.
"I like singing our songs together at school with my friend," said Nahara Klepetar, 6, referring to 5-year-old Ainsleigh Chandler.
Another girl exclaimed, "The whole thing!"
The rest of the group said they liked singing and dancing some choreography to familiar, fun songs, including the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music," and the Disney film tunes "How Far I'll Go," from "Moana" and "Under the Sea" from "The Little Mermaid."
"Dramatic play is another way for this age group to learn about their world," O'Leary said.
Families and friends gushed and giggled as their little ones traipsed and twirled around, some kids giving their all to stay on point, and others just doing their own thing. But all sang in tune together and seemed genuinely excited to be there.
"These kids have more potential than they get credit for at this age," Boles said. "If I give them some [direction], they'll learn it."
Josh Bloom, of Lee, said he enrolled his daughter, Lola Gordon-Bloom, 4, after seeing a flyer for the program. Other families came to Pittsfield on Saturday mornings from Williamstown, Becket and neighboring New York state.
"We loved it," said Bloom. "It allowed [Lola] to be very expressive and really learn songs and choreography."
O'Leary said the pilot proved successful and BSC will host a new six-week session starting April 27. Tuition is $195, with some financial aid available.
Simultaneously, behind the scenes, the Barrington Stage Company Education Program is forming new partnerships and initiatives, including continuing a partnership with Artistic Director Sam LaFrage and his Ragtag Theatre Company, through the BSC Youth Theatre program for teens ages 13-19. This summer, LaFrage will be developing a production of "Hansel and Gretel" with the youth to present "over-the-top musical comedy for families" in a "Sixteenth century Italian street theater style" O'Leary said.
The education director said the company's KidsAct and TeensAct programs continue to provide camps and other theater arts opportunities, as well as the student matinee and school residency programs.
Barrington Stage has also welcomed local playwright and director Michael Dowling aboard as its associate director for the Musical Theatre Conservatory, for which auditions were recently held in New York City. The program provides professional theater training during the summer months.
Dowling also works with the Playwright Mentoring Project — better known as PMP — a free six-month program for local teens and young adults to work with local theater educators, mentors and counselors and tell their own stories on stage. PMP runs multiple groups in Pittsfield and North Adams, and a series of school tours will begin on March 18 and continue through the end of the month.
The PMP is also expanding to include a new group meeting on the city's West Side with mentors from that area. For young adults who have participated in PMP for at least three years, Barrington Stage is also developing a PMP Alumni program for ages 26 and under "who want to continue to use theater to express things they care about in the world," O'Leary said.
The alumni group, along with the BSC internship program, will also focus on preparing and guiding young adults toward jobs in the theater to help them build a resume with new experiences.
"We're building that part slowly," O'Leary said, "but it's important, and it's an exciting time at Barrington."