by: Brian Bushard

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Laura Gallagher Byrne knows that not all of the 30 children on stage at the Dreamland are there because they want to be professional actors. For some, the stage is a place to be with friends after school, or to overcome stage-fright.

For eighth-grader Chloe Girvin, there’s a sense of camaraderie in performing with the friends you make on stage, and a connection you take with you from musical to musical that’s unlike anything you get in school or on a sports field. “I started when I was 5 looking up to the older kids. If I hadn’t started so early, I might not want to keep doing it,” said Girvin, who played the princess Anna in the Dreamland’s production of “Frozen Jr.” She’s been performing at the theater for nine years, since she was 5, the youngest you can be to audition for a production.

Chloe Girvin and Merrick Brannigan in the 2020 production of “Frozen Jr.”

“I’m shy, but when I’m on stage I’m not as nervous. When you’re on stage, you’re not yourself. You can play someone else who’s completely made up.”

Byrne is sitting in the front row of the theater. She’s directing a group of two dozen children, ages 5-18, as they rehearse a scene out of “Frozen Jr.” for a few hours after school. There are 78 kids in the musical altogether.

Byrne became the director of the Dreamland’s theater program four years ago, after teaching drama at Cyrus Peirce Middle School and directing at Theatre Workshop of Nantucket.

The shows at the Dreamland are a mix of musicals and plays, pay-to-perform and free-to-participate shows for kids, and shows with a mix of island adults and kids and professional actors from New York.

This summer, the Dreamland will produce a children’s production of “The Little Mermaid,” and in the fall, Byrne is planning an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” with a cast of children and adults.

Laura Gallagher Byrne knows that not all of the 30 children on stage at the Dreamland are there because they want to be professional actors. For some, the stage is a place to be with friends after school, or to overcome stage-fright.

There’s value in having kids performing on stage with adults, she believes. There’s more to learn than just getting into character.

“You're working with a variety of ages and a variety of interests,” Byrne said. “Some kids just want to give it a whirl and that's great. A kid who wants to come in and try it is just as welcome as a kid who knows they want to pursue acting and theater. You make really human connections and you're allowed to express connections that are not as welcome in other settings.”

“For kids to have an opportunity to do that in a theatrical setting, you can't replicate that,” she added. “It's not like a schoolroom, it's not like a sports field, because you don't have a competitor, you have an ensemble, and everybody has to work toward the good of the whole. Whether I'm Elsa or a Troll (in ‘Frozen Jr.’), my task is the same: to actualize a production and create something that has value and meaning that we present to an audience.”

Last year, the Dreamland put on a production of “Peter Pan Jr.” It was the first musical that put several of the actors, like Girvin (as Pan), on a wire suspended above the stage, giving them, for a brief moment, the illusion of flying.

Ash Elford played Captain Hook. At 18, it was his first foray into performing. Eighteen is the oldest you can be to perform in the youth theater troupe.

He was back on stage in February, helping Byrne and stage manager Margo Leist put finishing touches on the set, painting a white doorway. He hasn’t acted in another show since “Peter Pan Jr.,” but has been helping behind the scenes with production instead.

“What was most beneficial and meaningful for me is it gave me a chance to help kids who weren't confident expressing themselves,” Elford said. “Being a young adult, I thought it was easy to connect with them and be able to express their voices. I think the multi-generational idea is great because young actors can learn from teenage actors and teenage actors can learn from adult actors, or the other way around.”

In a way, directing a group of first-graders next to a group of fourth-graders, eighth-graders and high-schoolers is completely unique, Byrne said.

She was sitting down with a group of actors at a dress rehearsal for “Frozen Jr.” five weeks into rehearsals leading up to a two-week schedule of performances at the Dreamland. Directing children can pivot on a moment’s notice from giving them feedback on a song or dance number to supporting a younger cast member if they’re having a bad day.

“All those things are not part of being a director, but they are part of growing a program and working with children and treating them like professionals, being available for them, and meeting them where they're at,” Byrne said.

There are as many as 10 adults working with Byrne at each rehearsal: three stage managers, a music director, two interns, a projectionist and one or two crew members backstage. Byrne is at the center of it all. She has a background in theater, having performed in New York, and received a master’s degree in theater education from Emerson College in Boston. Sometimes, directing such a large group feels effortless, she said. At others, accommodating everybody in the production means being strategic about how she directs.

“You want to make sure even the 5-year-olds walk away thinking they have been valued and had a true theatrical experience. You also want the 15and 16-year-olds to think their performances weren’t minimized because of the younger kids being in it,” she said.

Fourteen-year-old Tatum Corbett said she feels like her performance was valued. That was also the case in her first production, “High School Musical,” three years ago. She had only signed up because her friends had auditioned, but gave it another go, and then another go.

She fell in love with not only performing, but the atmosphere of being in a supportive environment with her friends for a few weeks after school. So did 13-year-olds Claire Levesque and Erin Bradley.

Four years into directing, Byrne said she’s seen kids grow up through the program, and develop an appreciation for being on stage as well as a respect for both the script they’re following and the younger and older actors they’re performing with.

“I started to see the growth of a child through theater,” Byrne said. She noticed that when she put on her directing hat, coupled with her teaching experience, she could see the enormous benefit of theater in the lives of some young actors.

“I still have kids who say it was their favorite thing. ‘I learned how to make eye contact, how to get up in front of class and overcome stage fright, how to memorize your lines and why it's important, and teamwork.’ To me, that is a rousing success,” Byrne said. ///

Brian Bushard is a reporter for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. He writes about the arts frequently.

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