BROWNSTOWN

Nine hours after registration opened, Jackson County Young Artists’ Theatre children’s theater workshop was full.

The 77 boys and girls ages 5 to 18 is a record for the weeklong summer workshop, which recently was conducted for the fifth year in a row at Royal-Off-the-Square Theatre in Brownstown.

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John and Julie Rohlfing, who led the workshop for the second year, said children are drawn to it because it’s the only teaching children’s theater workshop available in southern Indiana.

They also were happy to report they had 100 percent retention again this year.

Another big draw? It’s free.

That again was made possible with support from the Jackson County Community Theatre and an Arts in the Park grant, which is a partnership between the Indiana Arts Commission and Indiana Department of Natural Resources that’s endorsed by the Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

“One of the things that JCCT has put big emphasis on is that this be a teaching program, so our goals are to teach kids confidence, to teach them a love of theater and communication skills,” Julie said.

The cooperation and creativity teaching elements also are attracting a lot of families, John said.

“So much of it has been word of mouth,” he said. “The fact that the families we started with a year and a half ago, many of them are still active with us. As we’ve just gotten feedback from families that are even further outside the county, we’re finding that we’re unique in the southern Indiana region. Even children’s programs in the Indy area aren’t doing as much teaching as we do.”

Other programs may charge a fee to participate and are more focused on performances and ticket sales.

“Most places, they’ll charge a flat fee for the kids to participate, so we are very blessed that JCCT felt that there was such an importance (of making it free),” Julie said.

“And that the state invested in us two years in a row, that’s a big deal and doesn’t always happen,” John said.

For the third year in a row, at the end of the workshop, the participants had an opportunity to audition for roles in a show.

This year, the production will be “Dorothy in Wonderland,” a mashup of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland.” With 60 cast members, it will be JCYAT’s largest show. It will be performed July 14, 15, 16, 21 and 22 at the theater in Brownstown.

During the workshop, children participated in a variety of activities to get them comfortable with being onstage, including working on expression and voice and improvising.

The activities were beneficial to those new to theater and those with experience. Julie said 30 percent of the kids were new.

“We’ve got some phenomenal actors and actresses, and we’ve got some who are just beginning, and the goal really is independently for each child just for them to build that love, the confidence and the skill so no matter where they are in that, we are able to take the same games and fun activities and really make it to where everyone gains,” she said.

John said the newcomers pick everything up fast.

“We get some surprises,” he said. “Some of the kids just grab a hold of this and take off. A lot of them, it’s like many things, better caught than taught. They kind of catch the bug from the other kids or each other.”

All of the activities also help with life skills, Julie said. That’s especially true with the improvisational exercises.

“That’s very much a theater thing. You have to be able to think on your toes, and you have to think fast, but that’s also life,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to think and go when life sends you in one direction. It’s just making it very practical but also very fun for them.”

The Arts in the Park grant also allowed JCCT to partner with Starve Hollow State Recreation Area in Vallonia for a workshop session there one day. The students broke away from acting and tried their hand at drawing.

Hannah Kerkhof, 13, of Seymour, Hannah Hackman, 13, of Brownstown, and Erin Nelson, 15, of Seymour all attended the workshop in the past. Those experiences prompted them to attend this year, too.

“Everyone has always told me I’m overdramatic, so my friend told me about this workshop, and I came here, had a great time and all of the people here are so nice,” Kerkhof said. “I came back and auditioned for the next show (last year) and got a part in that. I hadn’t done any acting before that, but they made it really easy, taught me how to do it and it was fun.”

Hackman said she has come a long way since her first year attending the workshop.

“Man, I’ve definitely become a lot better smiling with facial expressions and pronouncing words,” she said. “It helps you with your social skills and making eye contact with people and communicating with people better.”

If she hadn’t attended the workshop, Hackman said she probably wouldn’t be as confident with herself as she is now.

“I think it’s good for kids because it gets you out of your comfort zone, and it gives you something to do. You’re always busy,” she said. “And it helps you make new friends.”

Nelson also said she has made a lot of progress.

“I was bad when I first started,” she said, smiling. “It was really nerve-racking because I didn’t know anyone. I came into this knowing absolutely no one. I had helped with the adult shows, but I hadn’t ever met any of the kids.

“Now where I am, I’ve made all of these friendships, and I’ve developed as an actor a lot, too,” she said. “I was really shy the first show. Now, I love it. I don’t really get nervous anymore. I do get last-minute jitters right before I go onstage, but it’s more normal. The theater has developed a very strong place in my heart.”

Morgan Henry, 14, of North Vernon, on the other hand, has only done drama in school. His mother told him about the acting opportunities in Brownstown, so he thought he would check it out.

He said it was intimidating at first, but the other people helped him quickly adapt.

“It has helped me learn how to meet new people,” he said. “I’ve always felt pretty good onstage, but it has helped me boost my confidence more.”

Outside of the workshop, John said he has seen JCYAT kids support others at shows, whether that be at theaters or schools.

“They know what they are going through up there and what it took to put a show on, and they are just so glad to see them onstage,” he said. “It’s a very supportive group, even outside of these walls.”

For children who didn’t land a part in “Dorothy in Wonderland,” there will be two other opportunities this season to audition.

JCCT and JCYAT will come together for “Babes in Toyland” in December with auditions in September. Then for JCYAT’s “And Then There Was One” in January and February, auditions will be in December.

“We always encourage the kids that not getting in a show doesn’t mean you aren’t good. It means there is not a part that is a good fit for you,” John said. “The kids like to come out and try (auditioning), and we tell them to keep trying, take every opportunity that they can anywhere — get involved in the choir, get involved in your school’s program.”

Expecting more youth to become interested in acting, the Rohlfings already are thinking about next year’s workshop. That may be divided by beginner, intermediate and advanced actors.

“We’re trying to put the infrastructure together to add a third session next year,” Julie said. “That’s what we’re hoping to be able to do.”

If you go

What: Jackson County Young Artists’ Theatre production of “Dorothy in Wonderland”

When: 7:30 p.m. July 14, 15, 21 and 22; 2:30 p.m. July 16

Where: Royal-Off-the-Square Theatre, 121 W. Walnut St., Brownstown

Who: 60 actors ranging in age from 5 to 18; directed by John and Julie Rohlfing

Tickets: $8; may be purchased online at jcct.org, by calling 812-358-5228 or at the door

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.