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WLNG
April 12, 2006

Stages: Kids Theater Transforms Lives


There is nothing more magical than witnessing a child's wonder when he or she experiences live theater for the first time.

And when little faces lift expectantly and wait breathlessly for the curtain to rise, if it's a company of child actors that takes to the stage, the delight and joy reflected in their eyes is simply life-altering.

"I think every child will remember their first experience with the theater," said Helene Leonard, co-founder and director of Stages, A Children's Theatre Workshop, Inc. "And when they see kids their age doing this, and it's good, they really get inspired. It's a very magical moment."

Leonard has been creating lifetime memories for legions of young actors and theatergoers who've experienced the magic of Stages, an East End non-profit theater company dedicated to performing full scale musical productions of professional quality, now entering its 13th season. Actors who comprise the stellar casts are all between the ages of eight to 18 and Hamptons' community members.

Leonard was raised with the smell of greasepaint, the roar of the crowd: her father, Jerry Leonard, ran a professional theater for and by children in Cleveland during her childhood.

"I grew up doing this," she said. At 13, Leonard began teaching creative drama classes and embarked upon a career in directing, as well as performing.

After studying in the professional actors' program at Ohio University, she followed in the footsteps of so many aspiring actors and was drawn by the siren song of Broadway. During her 20 years in Manhattan, Leonard performed in a host of regional theater, Broadway, and television productions.

It was in the Big Apple that Leonard met her husband, Gene Stilwell, during a production of Sweet Charity. "We went on the road together and the rest is history."

Fifteen years ago, Leonard and her husband left New York and headed to East Hampton, where she worked as the director of

dramatics at the Hampton Day School before devoting herself full-time to her new non-profit organization, Stages.

After her father's death in 1980, Leonard knew in her heart that it was her mission to keep his rich legacy alive. "His work was so important. My father really had a theory about children's theater — he didn't believe in talking down to kids."

Rather than falling back upon the all-too-standard "downplayed" children's theater, known for its lack of strong material, Leonard's father believed in raising the bar. "He believed if you give them a professional standard for family entertainment, they will step up and want to perform. Children want to be challenged."

Quality productions are crucial not just for performers, but for young audiences, maintains Leonard, who says that it's critical to introduce children to live theater, often a threatened and "dying art" in today's society. "I think it's really important because live theater is not as accessible as other forms of entertainment," such as computer games and CDs. "You have to make an effort to go. Without audiences, there is no Broadway."

When she moved to the East End, Leonard set out to fill the gap in children's entertainment. Stages, which had its first summer in 1994, has flourished from a group of 14 kids to 50 involved in Once Upon A Mattress, currently in rehearsals.

Life lessons learned as part of a theater company transcend the stage. "There are two young men who joined at nine or 10. Both were heavy-set boys who didn't do sports and didn't know where they were headed. All of a sudden, they had a script in their hands and they were transformed." Today, "they're proud of who they are. They've have found an identity within the theater and transformed themselves onstage."

Painfully shy children blossom in the program, said Leonard. "All of a sudden, they're standing up straighter, singing loudly, holding their heads up. Their self-confidence grows in an instant."

The metamorphosis comes from utter trust. "I stress kindness. You can fall flat on your face and everyone in the cast is going to pick you up and say it's okay. It's a support system like no other."

Stages also breaks down the barriers in the often-trendy Hamptons. "It's such an equalizer. Here, we have the haves and the have-nots. Theater is a true democracy because everyone is the same."

Even adult volunteers learn lessons in acceptance. "You have someone who might be head of the country club and someone who cleans houses standing side by side, helping the kids. This doesn't happen in the Hamptons."

And there are no divas. "Everyone is part of a puzzle and it doesn't matter if you're the center or the size piece — the picture isn't complete without everyone."

Kids will carry their stage experiences throughout life. "It's really a family. Kids felt safe here, they became who they are as adults, and made a lot of life choices within Stages' doors. If I had anything to do with the person they became, then I feel as though I've made a difference in their lives."

Keeping her father's legacy and the wonder of theater alive for future generations is a magical mission for Leonard. "Theater does change your life," she said.

Once Upon A Mattress will be performed on Friday, April 28 and Saturday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 30 at 2 p.m. at The Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $12 for children and $15 for adults and can be purchased at The Bay Street Theatre Box Office or by calling (631) 725-9500.

For more information about Stages' programs and schedules, call

(631) 329-1420.

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