Arts and Culture

PlayTime Productions teaches young actors confidence and discipline

The company is in its 33rd season

Anika Derby cut off 5 inches of her hair for a lead role in a play. That’s quite a theatrical commitment for a teenage girl. But she got the trim to more convincingly portray the prince in “The Prince and the Pauper,” put on by PlayTime Productions Children’s Theatre in 2018.

“It was a bit of a shock to wake up and go, ‘Oh, wow. My hair looks like this now,’ ” says Derby. “Once the play ended, it sort of dawned on me that I’d have this hair for quite a while.” 

Derby, now a freshman at Madison East High School, has acted in seven PlayTime shows.

PlayTime Productions, in its 33rd season, is headquartered at the Monona Public Library. The children’s theater company produces two plays each year — in the spring and fall — and stages each play at 15 to 17 different locations throughout Dane County. Admission is a suggested donation of $3 or less.

Students in third grade through high school audition for PlayTime and rehearse for eight weeks leading up to opening night. PlayTime charges tuition but Renaye Leach — the company’s managing and artistic director since 2000 — says scholarships are available so no interested child is left out over an inability to pay. 

Leach says children who participate in PlayTime productions hone their reading and memorization skills and, through a rigorous rehearsal schedule, learn to cooperate as a team of cast members. Leach says they come to take pride in the high-quality productions.

The shows are approximately an hour long and include eight to 10 musical numbers. Teddy Studt, the company’s founder who died in 2010, modified a dozen classic stories, fables and fairy tales and wrote original musical numbers into plays that typically require 25 young actors. 

The 12 shows are performed over a six-year cycle before any are repeated. The 2019 fall show “Ali Baba and a Few Thieves” will be staged from Nov. 9 to Dec. 14. 

Leach says more than 3,500 people came to see PlayTime shows in 2018, including shows at the Barrymore Theatre and Overture Center for the Arts’ Promenade Hall.

Leach’s daughter, Myranda Stencil, 28, performed with PlayTime from second through eighth grade. Stencil, who works as a defense and civil litigation attorney in Madison, says the troupe had a tremendous impact on her life and career.

“Speaking in public in front of audiences is certainly applicable to speaking in a courtroom of some harsh critics, even a judge,” Stencil says. “Getting on the stage and performing in front of friends or strangers, it develops confidence.” And discipline comes from needing to attend auditions, rehearsals and performances, she adds.

Ari Rabinowitz, a Wright Middle School eighth grader, has been in eight PlayTime productions over four years. He says his favorite character to play was Grandpa in “The Little Match Girl” in 2017. “Grandpa was such a moody old geezer,” he says.

Rabinowitz says he’s grown in many ways thanks to his involvement with PlayTime. “I’m less antisocial, have more friends and I think I’m just a better person in general,” he says.

Tamira Madsen is a Fitchburg-based writer.


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