UCDC hosts Metro Theater Company for a production full of wonder, learning and laughter
Sunlight filtered through the many windows in the Ed Collabitat at the University of Missouri–St. Louis on April 25 and warmed the patchwork quilts laid out in front of Metro Theater Company’s makeshift stage.
Dozens of preschoolers made their way towards the sound of xylophone music played by actors Roxanne McWilliams and Phillip Dixon.
“Turn it around! Open it!” the children called out when the two performers began to make their way slowly and curiously around the large wooden box at the center of the stage.
At one point, a knock on one of its many painted doors brought out a fuzzy and pink-nosed Terrence the Mouse, who was accompanied by the sound of squeals and giggles.
The fun was all part of one of Metro’s “Out of the Box: Theatre for the Very Young” performances, which the College of Education’s University Child Development Center hosted for the benefit of some of UMSL’s youngest learners.
“Exposing young children to the theater is so important,” said UCDC Director Lynn Navin. “It helps to cultivate a deep appreciation for the arts and brings a new type of experience that they often do not have. Creative dramatics is another language of expression and learning that we can offer the children, and it’s one we believe is vital for both development and fun.”
Navin added that the idea to host Metro was one that’s been in the works for about a year.
“We learned that they were looking for spaces to pilot this type of theater performance, which is very different from the normal type,” she said. “‘Out of the Box’ performances are created with the audience in mind. They want the audience to be participants, so to speak, and after their performance there is an extension back to the classroom.”
The productions are also special because they invite parents and teachers to share in the excitement.
“I was so thrilled to be able to join Jackson for the play,” said Miriam Roccia, whose son attends UCDC while she’s hard at work as the assistant dean of students at UMSL. “It was such a joy to be able to see the classmates interact, enjoy and learn from the performance. It was a treat to be able to join the other parents and our children as they watched with wide eyes, giggled with their bellies and exclaimed with so much passion about things they saw happening during the show.”
Hearing those exclamations was the best of part of the experience for Metro Stage Manager Vonnie Ranta, who spent the show behind the scenes tending to special effects – whether they be lighting changes or the growing flowers the children could see cast in shadow.
“I can’t see the kids of course, so for me it’s all about hearing those gasps or laughs,” Ranta said.
“It’s all about making the connection with the children in whatever way we can,” added McWilliams, who walked into the audience during her performance to give each child a pretend butterfly. “Unlike in other performances where you typically have that fourth-wall element, in ‘Theater for the Very Young’ we have those connections and they are everything – they really enhance the performance. The best part is the moments when the children’s faces completely light up.”
Those instances of wonder and learning are the very reason the UCDC wanted to host Metro in the first place. They’re something the center – which also serves the community as a child development research hub and training ground for the university’s preservice teachers in training – has been devoted to providing for more than 40 years.
“The UCDC does such a great job helping our children learn through creative play, and this was just another example of how the kids are able to engage with one another while growing and learning together,” said Roccia. “Jackson told his dad with such joy about his favorite parts of the show when we got home that night and asked me over and over what my favorite parts were.”
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