SIERRA VISTA — For many of the parents who signed up their children for the city’s drama program, the class is about way more than theater.
Drama teaches their children how to better express themselves, and puts them in scenarios that help them to better understand their feelings.
This is just one of the reasons that parent Michelle Smith loved the classes for her two daughters.
“We adopted them, and we got them in there (the drama program) because they needed some type of stability and therapy because of all the situations they’d been in,” she said. “They needed a way to express anger, express feelings, and we thought drama would be good.
“It puts them in different situations, and helps them with self-esteem and their feelings.”
Smith, and other parents in this program, were devastated at the recent announcement that Drama for Kids would no longer be held in the city’s Oscar Yrun Community Center due to changes in the city’s class structure.
“What are they going to do now? It’s so positive for them,” Smith said. “They really like it, they like the other kids there.”
Drama for Kids started in 2016, and offered children ages 6 and up theater dynamics, acting warmups, prop and costume design.
The students of the class also got to choose what plays they wanted to produce, most recently performing “A Christmas Carol” in late December.
Instructor Ilene Sawey Axtell has always had a passion for theater, being involved in it herself while in high school and incorporating it into classes when she was an elementary school teacher.
She first brought the idea of a community kids theater class to the city a couple years ago.
“We started with four students, and our last production, we had 21 students,” she said. “It was nice that we had grown. It had taken two years, but we were still growing. Just had T-shirts printed; we had fundraisers — we were really starting to grow the program.”
Sawey Axtell said their relationship with the city has always been a good one, and that the city had been very accommodating with the multipurpose room in the community center used for class.
The city had been communicative about changes they were planning to the structure of city classes, but it was still a bit of a shock when the announcement came.
“The city decided that they wanted to change to contractors, so that’s kind of what happened,” she said.
The program just wouldn’t be sustainable under the new contract, and therefore had to be canceled.
The news came just days before classes were going to start back up, and the city has refunded all parents who had already paid.
Now, Sawey Axtell just wants to focus on finding a new space to keep the program going.
“I want my parents to know I'm not giving up, so that's really important to me,” she said. “The community needs a place where a diverse group of people can come together and have a commonality here.
“We are in theater, we are a family. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Students to the program got a full learning experience, focusing on vocal techniques, body movements and facial expressions, memory and imagination and character development. There were two classes, a beginners class and an advanced class with many students who had been in the program since it started.
The young participants also got to do work behind stage if that’s what they were most interested in.
It’s the growth and confidence-building acting provides in the children’s everyday lives that Sawey Axtell finds most meaningful.
“What the theater does is not only onstage, it’s all these little people we are developing through the theater. That's something I want parents and the community to understand,” she said. “It's fantastic what we do in here, getting them to come out of their shells.”
Parent Rachel Kusama said that when her daughter first joined the class they had just moved from Texas away from all her friends.
“It gave my child the confidence to speak in front of others and was a great means of facilitating the development of friendships over a common interest,” she said. “We had moved here because I was offered a position utilizing my graduate degree and my belief as a provider was that theater is a great place for people to develop coping skills, practice empathy, learn how to express emotion, and try out different roles to see what they like best.”
Kusama has participated in theater herself, and has used those skills learned onstage in her jobs and daily life. She is hopeful the program can continue.
“The city's drama program provided children with an affordable means to develop real-world interpersonal skills in a fun activity all under the guidance of an experienced, brilliant, creative educator,” she said.
The affordability of the program at $50 for an eight-week session made it accessible for many of the families involved.
“For some kids, it's their only program and outlet to express themselves,” Smith said. “This is a good program, and it’s going to be missed.
“I just hope they bring it back and if not that they get another place Ilene can still do the things she loves to do, is passionate about doing.”
Sawey Axtell said all the students in her classes have expressed interest in returning once they can find a new space.
Ideally, the program needs a space that is about the same size as its last one, with room for a stage area, house and their biggest space need: room for storage. When they have an upcoming production, they need somewhere to keep costumes, props and set pieces, which can take a great deal of space.
Though Sawey Axtell is sad to leave the city’s space, she is thankful to the city for their support over the last two years. She is hopeful she can still provide a grassroots, community theater program to children who might be too young for other programs.
“What people don't realize is that theater and drama is not just about acting onstage,” she said. “There are so many different elements that build a child as they grow as an actor.
“That’s something we’re losing as a community when we don't have this to fall back on.”
Anyone with ideas, potential spaces or a desire to help can reach Sawey Axtell at Born2cropAxtell@hotmail.com or 520-559-3779.