Theater's children's workshop promotes community, self-confidence

NEW PORT RICHEY - Just past the photo of the late Charlie Skelton that reads "Remember Me with a Smile and Laughter," giggles ring out from the theatre stage as Caitlyn Ramirez draws her lips up into a smile with her index fingers.

"Remember to smile! Be happy! This is not a depressing song!" the college junior tells her students as they practice singing "The World Is What We Make It," a song penned by Skelton several years ago for an original "Alice in Wonderland" play.

This is the 12th year for the Richey Suncoast Theatre's Children's Workshop, a summer program that teaches children about acting, singing, dancing, making their own costumes and props and even technical aspects like lighting and sound.

"It's a lot to do in five days but the kids can do it because they're sponges," said theatre owner, Marie Skelton, Charlie's wife. "They absorb everything and learn the lines, the songs and the dances."

This is the first children's workshop since Charlie died last year, and Ramirez says the theatre still echoes with his presence. The young people who grew up in the theater miss Charlie but know he'd be proud to them continuing on in his memory.

"A lot of people came for the shows but stayed for Charlie," Ramirez said.

"A lot of the kids grow up here," Marie said. "Some come back year after year and then teach as counselors in high school and college."

Ramirez, now a student at the University of Central Florida, comes back to the Richey Suncoast each summer to teach future generations of theater students how to project their voices and hone their performance talents. She started in the program when she was just 7 years old and is on the cusp of turning 20.

"There's a sense of community at this theater," Ramirez said. "You watch the kids stay and continue year after year. That's how I was."

She looked around the room at the energetic kids practicing songs and running lines and signed.

"It makes me feel really old," she said about seeing some of her younger students come back as teenagers.

Trina Brown is one of those students. The 12-year-old started the program six years ago, and Ramieriz has watched her grow into an outgoing pre-teen with a love for the stage.
"I do all the shows that I can," Trina said. "It's fun to see how you and your friends progress in your acting."

This year's youngest student is 5, in a group of about 30. The ages range up to about 16, with older students becoming counselors who work with the children in small groups to teach them to project their voices, choreograph dances and sew costumes.

Marie said there were no children's programs at the downtown theater when she and her husband took over more than a decade ago.

"We said 'We have to have kids here.' It's good for the community, the theater, the families and for them. It's a safe haven and keeps them off the streets."

Marie said that's not the only way the program helps students. The participants tend to get better grades in school because they learn time management skills and memorization tricks. She also requires them to keep up their grades to participate in winter performances.

"A lot of parents come up to me and say they have more confidence in school," Marie said.'

The star of this year's show agrees that the program is giving her confidence. Maddy Ewing, 9, is playing the title role of Alice in her first time trodding the boards.

"It makes me feel like I have self-confidence and I can face my fears and do anything," Maddy said. "I was screaming when I found out I got the part. Not out loud, but in my head."

After a quick snack break, Ramirez gently corrals them back onto the stage to go over their scripts. She enjoys her taste of being a stage manager but thinks she worries more than the kids do.

"Once they take the stage, it's out of your hands," Ramirez said. "It's like I'm a stage mother."

The students will perform the play they worked on all week on Saturday, June 15, at 3 p.m. Each student was given two tickets for friends and family and additional tickets will be sold at the door for $5.

For more information call the box office at (727) 842-6777.