Three weeks ago, on a hot September night -- the air rising from the asphalt made its own hot draft -- a very small crowd collected outside the old PlayWrights Workshop Theatre on First Street. The door was locked and people were waiting to get in. They shifted on their feet and made idle conversation or looked at the ground; finally someone hammered on the window and called for the door to open. Open it eventually did, both literally -- "Ah, air conditioning!" someone said gratefully -- and metaphorically, on a new lease for the performance space and new opportunities for its tenant, Valley Youth Theatre.
There is nothing -- so to speak -- dramatic about the new workshop space, which consists of a small stage, a few rows of stadium seats and the two-by-four skeleton of a primitive lighting system. But for the half-dozen players who inaugurated the stage (and whose parents, siblings and friends stood dutiful witness), it offered significant advantages over the administrative offices where they had rehearsed. In particular, there was more space to fall down.
"I tried to teach them how to fall safely, but I think with the excitement of being in this new space, some of them got carried away," said a resigned Jim Gradillas, VYT's education director, whose comedy and slapstick students were the first to perform on the workshop stage. They had done so expansively: falling, in fact, all over the place. Gradillas sighed. No one seemed to be hurt.
Valley Youth Theatre offers numerous classes and workshops -- in school, after school and during the summer -- for kids as young as 5 and as old as 18. (Most participants fall between the ages of 9 and 12, although the company is offering more demanding classes in a bid to interest older teens.) During the school year, Gradillas guessed, its programs reach as many as 300 students a week.
The comedy and slapstick class was one of more than 20 workshops scheduled for the fall semester. A few remain before the end of the year, and more are planned for the spring. The new workshop is a boon for VYT's extracurricular programs, offering students more space to rehearse and perform, and a more authentic theater experience.
While VYT's classes range from musical theater to directing, "I really enjoy teaching the comedy," Gradillas said. Comedy and slapstick student Hannah Gardner, a precocious 7-year-old, seemed to enjoy being taught.
"When you mess up, it's really funny," she said. "And the best thing is, he [Gradillas] changes the play to be like when you messed up."