Kids learn more than lines at Town Hall Theatre
By Val Beerbower
Though its first “productions” were reserved for political pageantry today Town Hall Theatre stages aspirations for future generations.
Nestled in Centerville’s historic downtown area, situated just across the street from the stone house of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s great uncle, Asahel Wright, Town Hall first debuted in 1908. The facility hosted town meetings, graduations and Grange activities, and continued to provide the backdrop for local government until 1985.
Township officials deliberated transforming Town Hall into a performing arts center before the historic landmark was turned into the All Children’s Theatre in 1991. The facility underwent renovations between 1992 to 1996 resulting in a newly refurbished auditorium, lobby and rehearsal room, as well as the installation of an accessible ramp entrance and restrooms, a dance studio and scene shop.
For nearly 30 years, Town Hall Theatre not only has entertained audiences but engaged the developing minds of children gracing the stage. Operated by the Washington Township municipal government, Town Hall Theatre connects young talent to the broader theater community through professionally trained artists as directors, designers and educators, as well as adults engaged as actors to help guide the children on stage.
More than 400 volunteers donate their time and talents to encourage these kids. For parents like Amy Kress the level of professionalism means a world of difference. “Theater builds confidence, cooperation and great character in kids,” she says. “It’s just like any other sport or activity—you get out what you put in.”
Kress’s daughters, Katie, a sophomore at Centerville High School, and Sarah, who is in sixth grade, have grown up—quite literally—with Town Hall Theatre. Kress says her oldest daughter was fascinated with live performances since she was just a toddler and Town Hall Theater provided not only means to enjoy the productions but an opportunity to meet cast members.
“As soon as she was old enough, maybe kindergarten, there was a class for parents and kids together at Town Hall that we did,” Kress says. “And as soon as she hit first or second grade (Katie) started taking the classes needed to audition.”
Kress says Katie’s first play was Camp Rock and then-second-grader Katie was determined to make a good impression. “I heard they were doing a Disney show and nothing was going to stop me from auditioning,” Katie says. “I remember being handed junior musical scripts and I treated it like holy texts.” Katie’s debut as Rosie Day in that production successfully passed the theater bug to her little sister, who watched raptly in the house.
It took a little more encouragement for Sarah to step into the limelight, but first she gained confidence behind the curtain. “My sister had done many shows and I finally got the guts to do crew,” Sarah says. “I crewed for a few more shows and that’s when I started to audition. I was really nervous but excited to be a part of the show.”
Katie agreed that nerves come into play when performing, but mastering public speaking turns out to be a skill with applications off-stage, as well. “Stage fright is (a challenge) you overcome,” she says. “But the skill of speaking on command about a topic with confidence is one that has come in handy for many school projects.”
Interpersonal skills also shine brighter through acting, according to Katie. Working in a team environment with other people, both kids and adults, can prove to be challenging yet rewarding when delivering the finished, polished product. “(Actors) are constantly forced to pretend we are friends, family or romantic interests with people that sometimes we don’t like very much,” she says. “You learn to put up with it, be professional and make friends. This is a skill that is hard to find outside of theater and makes you extremely employable.”
Kress concurs that the discipline required of the kids (and adults) nurtures relationships and helps participants develop those “soft skills” sought in the modern workforce. “There has to be a ton of dedication and work outside the theater to really be good at this,” she says.
“It is so important to have a place for kids to learn these skills of working with others,” Katie says. “This is an environment where you have to be a family in order to make it happen. It taught me discipline and a new standard of learning for myself.”
Parents aren’t the only ones giving Town Hall Theatre a standing ovation. Time and again residents of Washington Township continue their support through passage of a levy and the organization continues its run as part of the Washington Township Recreation Center family. The most recent levy passage will fund upgrades to the facility, including new windows and HVAC system.
“The theater has since defined its place in Dayton, dedicating itself to the presentation of exceptional theater for young people, reflective of models set forth so successfully by national organizations,” says Lynn Sellers, recreation supervisor for Washington Township. “Now in its 27th season, the program relies on two producing arms to put on a nine-show season. The Mainstage Series is the premiere series featuring adult actors performing with young people of a wide range of ages. The Showcase Series is our educational series with performers in grades 2-6.”
The public is invited to reap the benefits of their subsidized investments. The 2019-2020 season will kick off with the Showcase Series in August followed by the Mainstage production in September. The kids and volunteers all work hard to put on a great show, and the seats aren’t just reserved for family members.
Support from the community validates their efforts and pushes them to succeed, according to Kress. “It’s a lot of hours to put in and neither of my kids is ever dragging their feet about going to rehearsals,” she says. “If they don’t work on their own and have that internal drive then this is a really hard activity.”
As each show changes, one consistent is the life lessons that stick with the children after the curtain drops. “Town Hall Theatre is a great experience,” Sarah says. “It has changed me in the best way possible to make new friends express myself and embrace myself.”
To learn more about upcoming performances, classes, auditions, and ticket information visit washingtontwp.org/recreation/town_hall_theatre.