There is a “Hall of Heroes” lining the walls of the lower lobby at the Wilson Theatre in Old Town Salinas – not individual portraits of important ARIEL Theatrical alumni, but cast photos of children and adults who have participated in dozens of productions that changed lives and influenced generations. At first glance this collection of pictures is a pleasant visual history of performances that have graced the stage, but given a closer examination individual children begin to speak to your imagination as their reappearing faces change and mature. One sees subtle differences in their demeanor or their stance and over the years the toothy grins turn into attractive smiles as if to say, “I’m growing up and look what I have become.”
Not every child or adult that participates in an ARIEL production returns for another show, but the vast majority are immediately ready to sign up for their next opportunity to serve the community. Children respond to opportunities to perform as volunteers at hospitals, schools, shelters and recreation facilities. Parents discover the pleasure of lending a hand in service organizations, day care, classrooms and clinics. Audiences realize their responsibility to the future by donating time and funding to worthy causes that build tomorrow.
In a literal sense, alumni return to perform again and again in new offerings of ARIEL’s rotating theatrical schedule. The current production of MISS NELSON HAS A FIELD DAY is an example of the alumni spirit in action. Miss Nelson is played by Natalie Harris, a thirty-something registered nurse at the Monterey Peninsula Surgery Center, who first experienced ARIEL as a high school junior over fifteen years ago. Now an accomplished professional giving back to the community, she is tackling the difficult duel role of Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp, her menacing alter ego. Parent volunteer Sarah Quidileg is once again taking notes, chasing down details and monitoring participants, seemingly everywhere at once in her recurring role supporting ARIEL and her very involved alumni children. Diane Chatwin, who has been a stalwart supporter of ARIEL since its inception, is back as choreographer. Her years of energetic dance instruction, forthright observations, and gentle correction place her firmly in the ARIEL pantheon of heroes. ARIEL founder, Gail Higginbotham, pulls, prods and challenges cast members to think about theatre as a metaphor for life – and she succeeds.
The twenty-one teens cavorting in football jerseys, cheer leader outfits and white tennis shoes are faces pulled from the frames of those cast photos found in the basement lobby. Nearly all have faced the ARIEL challenge of making the world a better place and are returning to the ARIEL stage, and in this show, to the imaginary Horace B. Smedley Elementary School. These student alumni with youthful exuberance and startling maturity have learned valuable life lessons that seem to explode from the stage as they rehearse MISS NELSON HAS A FIELD DAY.
This will be the last production for some as they this year graduate high school and move into adulthood. As ARIEL alumni they will continue to give back in ways too numerous to mention. The stamp of greatness seen in embryo on those photos in the hall is a lasting impression that will reach out and influence others for good.
This is not to say that life is always easy at ARIEL. The work is arduous, and the expectations high. Some days things just do not go as planned and the challenges can be extensive. Participants know that life can be hard, but they also know that they can do hard things.
Occasionally, Higginbotham reminds the cast of one of her favorite children’s books, ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE. NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY by Judith Viorst. In this charming story, Alexander is beset by every possible disaster he can think of and wants to move to Australia, a far away safe place. In his mind this will solve all his problems. Eventually Alexander learns that even in Australia some days are difficult, but the idea of a respite keeps him going.
At Camp Elderly Army Post in Italy there is a fourth grade teacher who has a corner in her classroom with a blanket, pillow and posters of Australia. Every child (and the teacher, too) has the right to go to “Australia” in times of stress and set the timer for ten minutes of relief. It works during a difficult time when fathers and mothers are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan risking their lives in this turbulent era.
ARIEL Theatrical is such a place for hundreds of children; a safe zone where discord in the community, at school, or in their personal lives can be held at bay; a place where life can be sorted out and given focus while learning the skills to become heroes in their individual worlds: an “Australian” refuge.
MISS NELSON HAS A FIELD DAY opens April 30 with a 7:00 pm performance and continues with matinee performances at 2:00 pm on May 1, 8, and 15. Additional evening performances are May 1, 7, 8, 14 and 15. Enjoy an evening of theatre and visit the “Hall of Heroes” in the lobby downstairs. You may see a familiar face!
There is ample opportunity for you or your child to become an ARIEL alumnus. One-week summer workshops, a production of the musical PETER PAN in a three-week conservatory setting and the exciting Andrew Lloyd Weber Musical, JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT are in pre-production mode and accepting registration. To reserve a place for your child or to volunteer call the Wilson Children’s Theatre at 831-775-0976. Become an alumnus of a great institution. Help make the world right.