Alicia Wolfram, Community News Service
Imagine walking into a rustic barn on a rolling Charlotte hill and, instead of finding animals in stalls and hay strewn about, seeing kids busily rehearsing lines, building sets and assembling costumes. That’s a typical day at Very Merry Theatre’s summer camp.
What started almost two decades ago as only a camp in a local barn has grown into a theater organization serving about 1,000 youths annually from northwestern Vermont.
Based in Burlington, Very Merry Theatre introduces young people to the art of theater by immersing them in all aspects of play production — acting, set design, touring and more. Parents can register their kids online for a variety of classes, programs and camps ranging in price and age group. The nonprofit welcomes participants 4 to 19 years-old and offers financial aid.
Plays have included “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “King Lear, the Western” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The 40s Musical,” among others.
From its small start in 1994, the nonprofit now works with kids at local schools, summer camps and at its studio in Burlington to put on more than 40 shows each year. Along the way, it has nurtured a community of kids, parents, volunteers and board members to ensure children take center stage.
The group wants kids to “develop a sense of belonging and a safe place to explore all the many theater arts,” said founder Don Wright.
He said the group wants to help kids overcome any obstacles to accessing the program by providing lunch or rides if needed. The organization also partners with schools to stage shows on campus, rather than at the group’s studio or on the road. That way, Wright said, transportation and program costs do not limit participation. All the schools involved now are in Burlington.
Every child who wants a role in a play gets one. Wright makes sure of that — he adapts more than half of the plays and creates as many new characters as needed.
By the mid-’90s, Wright had started his camp and was volunteering at his kids’ school when he noticed there wasn’t much opportunity for young people in theater. So, he thought up Very Merry. Parents and teachers liked what he was doing, and he kept building. “I just kept knocking on the door of more schools over time, and eventually we got our own space,” he said.
Wright held the first camp at a friend’s barn on Mount Philo Road in Charlotte. Eight years later in 2002, under the banner of Very Merry, he moved the camp to Staige Hill Farm Barn on Garen Road, where it remains.
“The barn itself is just a very magical place to be rehearsing,” said Jessie Heiser, whose 8-year-old twins Maisie and Beatrice attended the camp last summer and plan to return this year.
Heiser said her daughters felt instantly at home, which speaks to the “power of the kindness and openness” of Very Merry. “They really do care and have fun with children and because of that, kids feel welcome and happy,” she said.
Wright feels the same about Charlotte. “We were fortunate enough to find a barn there that really fit our needs,” he said. “Charlotte’s been a huge presence for us. … It is the genesis of where it started, and we’re there every year.”
The 7 to 13-year-old “Wagon Tour,” one of the signature camps, spans two weeks and consists of six practice days and four performance days, the latter spent in a different town each time. The first week takes place at Staige Hill Farm Barn. The second week, the show goes on the road with a mobile stage — the wagon — which trails behind a truck and folds out fully decorated for each performance.
The troupe usually sets up on a lawn and attracts a lively crowd: People pour in with lawn chairs, blankets and snacks. “From toddlers to older folks, you really get quite an array of audience members,” Heiser said.
The Charlotte Library hosts the wagon once or twice each summer. It expects to host “Winnie the Pooh” this July 4.
“People just love it,” said Cheryl Sloan, the library’s youth services librarian. “It’s a really great space to hold that kind of production.”
Behind all the prep and performing, for Wright, is a deep dedication to kids. “My most fundamental philosophy that drives what I do is to not disappoint kids,” he said. “I want them to feel important and valued in our productions.”
He takes a collaborative approach to directing, and people notice.
“I really like to watch Don work with the students,” Sloan said. “He knows how to bring out the best in all of the kids he works with, and he just gives 110 percent to every production he ever does.”
Wright calls it an ensemble effort. “We love the creative, imaginative energy and input from all the age groups. Even a 7-year-old still has ideas on how her character, Piglet, should be expressed,” he said. “That’s part of what’s great about art, that discovery.”
Community News Service works in a partnership with The Charlotte News and other local media outlets to provide opportunities to University of Vermont students.