‘Theater Works’ in Akron
Noah Wright could hardly contain himself backstage after performing in Disney’s “Aristocats” at the Akron, Ohio, Citadel Corps.
The 6–year–old boy, who played Thomas O’Malley, jumped up and down and sought out artistic director Sarah Bailey, who is an integral part of a unique partnership between The Salvation Army and Akron’s professional Rubber City Theatre.
“Miss Sarah, I could just scream right now!” Noah said. “Will we always feel this way? Do we get to do this again?”
Bailey said Noah’s reaction is typical. The Salvation Army/Rubber City Theatre connection is changing lives among the poor and at–risk youth who grow up amid Akron’s heroin crisis.
“You shut that curtain, and those kids are joyful,” Bailey says. “They’re exuberant. That joy and pride is worth every penny anyone could give to us. They’ll say, ‘Miss Sarah, we did it! They applauded us! We’re so proud.’ That is why theater works.”
Majors Kevin and Linda Jackson, the corps officers in Akron, have seen firsthand how theater works.
When the Jacksons arrived last year, Major Kevin wrote “Black Box Theater” on a whiteboard as one of his dreams. The Jacksons, who were previously stationed in Los Angeles, tried theater before, but it never took off.
“We always knew we wanted to do something more with theater and drama,” he said. “The theater tradition here in the Eastern Territory is just a little more robust.”
Things began to take shape in May when the Jacksons saw Dane C.T. Leasure, artistic director of Rubber City Theatre, in a performance of “Julius Caesar.” An actor who hails from northeast Ohio, Leasure is also an educator who holds a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Letters in Shakespeare and Performance and a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities.
The show took place in a former church. The Jacksons were impressed with the show, but not the stage or acoustics. They wanted Rubber City—whose name is a nod to the city’s historic tire industry—to also start theater education classes.
“One thing led to another and we formed this relationship and partnership,” Major Kevin said. “We clicked. We look at the world through the same lens in a lot of ways. It became apparent that this was going to be good for our community. So far, it has been.”
Bailey, who had worked in youth theater for 13 years and was the associate artistic director at Rubber City, met Major Kevin.
“I was in tears,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I’m all in. Here’s my card. I want to be a part of this.’”
Taking the stage
During the summer, Bailey led theater education classes. The result was 22 kids from the Salvation Army’s summer program who performed “The Lion King Jr.,” which Bailey directed.
The show, which sold out all three nights, was an opportunity for Cerenity Williams, 6, to display her dancing ability.
“I liked everyone seeing us show our talents,” she said. “It was exciting.”
The program continued into the school year and has evolved into Billy Booth’s Arts and Science Factory, an after–school arts academy named in honor of William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army. The academy is for kids from kindergarten to age 12, and there is also a teen program for ages 13–18.
Volunteers pick up the kids and take them to the corps where they get a snack, homework help, and recreation. Then, it’s off to a variety of classes, which include drama, piano, brass, classical guitar, music theory, tap dance, creative writing, playwriting, pottery, reading intervention, and cooking.
There’s a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) component, as well as an elaborate indoor farming operation.
“It’s nothing short of amazing,” Major Kevin says. “It’s changing young lives so dramatically—unlike anything I’ve really seen in all my years in The Salvation Army.
“Our plan at the Akron Citadel is to come alongside children as young as 18 months and stay with them until they’re 18 years old, at which point they will transition into the University of Akron as freshmen.”
Major Kevin said 240 kids are involved in Billy Booth and come from the corps and the Akron public school system, which has formed a partnership with The Salvation Army. Some of the classes meet in the schools each day.
“Our goal is to have 400 kids involved in the program by next summer,” Major Kevin said. “Two years out, the goal is to have 2,500 kids in the program.
“That’s where we’re headed. The Akron public schools have identified 2,500 kids ‘who need The Salvation Army.’ Those are their words, not ours. They’ve asked, ‘Can you help us?’ I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but our answer is ‘yes.’ Those are good problems to have and good challenges to face.
“Akron has a lot of problems. But they’re thinking, how do we fix this? Their attitude has afforded us an opportunity to become a bigger part of this community’s social fabric. We want to be part of the solution. They want us in every school. They know what’s working and what’s not.”
Bailey joined Billy Booth as director of programming for arts and sciences. The younger kids and teens have combined to put on “The Lion King,” “The Aristocats Kids,” Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” “Godspell,” and “A Christmas Carol.” The cast numbers 25–30 kids a show.
“In a short time, we’ve put on a number of decent-sized productions with kids who, for the most part, have never been on a stage before,” Major Kevin said. “The kids here absolutely eat it alive. They love it.
“As an officer, I’m interested in outcomes. We’ve seen profound change in some of the kids. We saw some older kids who had had one foot in the gang world. I’ve been so impressed with the change that has taken place in those children as they navigated their way through this whole experience of theater.”
The God in ‘Godspell’
The spiritual angle is not forgotten. During rehearsals for “Godspell” for ages 13–18, the actors prepared by praying before each show and read Scripture directly out of the Bible.
One actor made it clear that she didn’t believe in God, but nonetheless, the play had a profound spiritual affect on her.
“When we did the crucifixion, I saw her journey come full circle,” Bailey said. “She watched this and lived this. Now, she’s questioning everything and she’s beginning to look back at her faith and her belief system.
It’s about kids
“I’ve never preached to them, but we have talked about their journey of faith. I’ve seen these kids bring the script of ‘Godspell’ to life.”
On Tuesdays, the kids avail themselves of traditional Salvation Army programs such as Sunbeams and Adventure Corps troops. On Wednesdays, they enjoy the Orange Sunday School program.
“On Wednesday, every kid in Billy Booth goes to Orange,” Major Kevin said. “I don’t care if they go Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon, as long as they’re getting the message. I think Orange is phenomenal.”
Major Kevin said, “Our commitment is to children.”
“We predicate almost everything we do in the community on children’s programming,” he said. “Our programs are about children truly overcoming poverty and finding hope; not perceived hope—but something tangible in their lives.”
Building for the future
Major Kevin said when he first arrived in Akron, there wasn’t one kid in Sunday school. Now, there are 50.
“For the first two months after we arrived, we didn’t have one kid in the building on Sunday,” he said. “We had some kids in troupes, but none on Sunday.
“There’s no future for a corps that has no children. We’re being intentional. No bones about it, we’re intentionally growing younger. Our philosophy is simple—we’re not going to sit back on our hands and lose another generation of kids. It’s that simple.”
Rubber City Theatre has done its part by sending professional actors to help train the Salvation Army actors.
Tips from pros
“We want these kids to have those professional experiences,” Leasure said. “We are doing full-out productions. As these productions grow, we’ll get more professionals involved so the kids will feel they’re getting treated just as they would if they were working at some of the really big theaters across the United States or on Broadway.”
The talent Leasure and others are nurturing was on display in November when the cast performed “Godspell.”
Jada Lynn Pledger, 13, who wowed the crowd with her singing in the play, said she also loved working with children at the summer camp.
“I think it’s so beneficial for the kids to be in an environment where they are loved and accepted for who they are,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t get that at home.”
Aliyah Evans, 15, who grew up poor, called the summer camp an “amazing experience.”
“I see a lot of myself in those kids and it’s amazing to talk to them and see how happy they are,” she said. “They’re the sweetest and most genuine people you’ll ever meet in your entire life. It was amazing to teach them what I love to do.
“I love to bring them something that gives them pure happiness. There is no pressure; it’s just having fun. It’s like an escape for them, where they can be themselves.”
Many kids in the cast called the group a “family.” Sarah Craven, 16, said she loved performing with them.
“I like being able to tell a story to the audience, whether it’s for the first time or if it’s their favorite,” she said. “I just like giving them entertainment.”
Future shows include “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“We try to find a balance between good, wholesome, well-produced productions and more faith–based shows,” Major Kevin said.
They’ve performed some shows at the Akron Citadel. The Salvation Army now owns an 18,000 square foot former warehouse across town. The corps has dedicated 5,000 square feet for the “Black Box Theater” Major Kevin dreamed of when he first arrived. The remaining space will be used for indoor farming.
“It’s great for us because some of the theater classes will be held there when the kids come out for farming,” Leasure said.
Major Kevin said the connection between corps and community goes even further. For instance, some people from the corps volunteer at Rubber City productions, including Mark Lindberg, who handles lighting and construction and also serves as the corps sergeant–major.
“He is an integral part of our productions,” Leasure said. “There are really quality people who are part of the corps who also help shape what we do in our shows.”
In watching the productions, Major Kevin may be catching a bit of the acting bug himself.
“I’m the ripe old age of 55 and I’m ready to give it a go,” he said. “If nothing else, I’ll audition for the grumpy old man part,” he says. “That’s not a reach for me either.
“There is a high level of interest [for theater] among adults in the corps already.”
Major Kevin said the theater program is part of an overall outreach strategy. The corps now maintains a full–time office at the University of Akron designed to reach millennials.
“We’re at our universities and we’re in our neighborhoods and we’re here for people 30 and under,” Major Kevin said. “That doesn’t mean it’s all we do, but we’re now giving that population the priority.
“This opiate thing in Akron is as bad as it gets anywhere in the country. In our first year here, seven people connected to the corps died of heroin overdoses. We’ve got to do something about this. There are no easy answers or magic bullets. We’re going to get in there and make a difference. That’s what we decided to do.
“We’re very fluid. We do what works. Theater works because it reaches out to them in a special way.”
by Robert Mitchell