At age 8 he was Rock No. 4 in the play.

This reluctant 8-year-old was soon to become a much more significant part of his forest, one with a lot more responsibility occupying a lot more space. By age 11 he was designing lights, by age 14 he was stage managing his second show.

A Main Stage show, that is. For adults. A kid reminding grown-ups where they went wrong.

Young Ronald may have begun as a child among children, but his growth was due in large part to an activity called Theatre For Young People — where seeds are sometimes planted that become redwoods.

I spoke with the directors of these programs for both Lakeland Community Theatre and Theatre Winter Haven. Maureen McGowan and Molly Judy have been the gatekeepers for these formative programs for young people, between them now, for 27 years.

Keepers of the forest

“Our job is to develop life skills, to instill confidence, to provide structure,” they said, almost in unison. “The Theatre Academy can teach kids how to communicate to others,” they add, this time in harmony.

Like it did for Rock No. 4.

Or the kids who went on to college, the ones who now work at Disney, Universal, Legoland and even Broadway. The acting jobs, the tech jobs, the manager jobs — the theater was their mentor. Sometimes their savior.

“We are here to provide life’s lessons.” And what a life these programs have become.

When Maureen first arrived at the embryonic children’s program at LCT she was handed a clipboard and a class. Since then she has helped begin the theater’s program for special needs kids, increased the number of classes from third grade through teens while still producing three productions a year, directing one plus her Special Needs program and a Page-to-Stage traveling troupe. Whew.

Each with a lot more rocks than four.

Together with the usual classes and productions at Theatre Winter Haven she directs, Molly Judy has implemented a program for home-schoolers, a Christmas production and showcase, even How to Audition workshops. Plus a talented troupe of teens tours the schools.

Add to that the successful daytime school performances at both theaters in which more than 10,000 school children are bused — or driven by parents — and the world of theater enlarges. Young people across both sides of the footlights enriched.

Of course, there are inherent difficulties in dealing with young people — just ask any school teacher. “We have to develop a program that meets the needs of the community,” Molly enjoins. “Not every kid is going to Broadway.” “Finding the right fit,” Maureen manages to fit in.

The toughest part? An audition is a competition, I am told by Molly. “It’s hard to break a kid’s heart if not cast,” Maureen adds.

Making it all work

Then how do these wizards mend that heart? For those who aren’t cast there are workshops, or a summer program in which everyone gets a role, or even a club for older teens aptly named “The Improvables.” After all, a bad audition does not mean a bad kid.

It means these two wizards have to help provide the child’s own yellow brick road.

“We had a boy who wasn’t cast, so we invited him to run a spotlight up in the catwalk,” Miss Molly says, as the kids call her. Sure, his dad said, but only if you put him in a harness attached to the railing. No fall, no fail, he was soon to be in his own spotlight as he claimed lead roles in future plays.

On occasion it can also be difficult to meet the needs of those with special needs. For Lakeland Community Theatre it’s the program called Out of the Box. For TWH it’s putting the child in the place less likely to fail.

“Finding the right fit,” I was reminded.

Or finding enough space to perform or rehearse. Both Academy programs have grown so much they’ve begun playing hopscotch for classes and rehearsals. Lakeland currently moved some activities to a car dealership, Winter Haven to a bank building.

Busting at the teens.

“Children need ‘tape lines,’” these directors said, referring to the masking tape eventually applied to the stage floor to indicate where the scenery will go. “Kids with varying abilities need more time in the actual performing space.”

It’s all about the space, not the level.

Parents want their kids on stage, these wizards remind me, referring to the place in which the folks expect to see their kids perform. It’s call theater for a reason. Expect one. Practice makes pretty.

Thus, the overwhelming problem for both is simply more time needed on the actual stage, this duo of educators agrees.

Or a place of their own.

Oh, and by the way, that Rock No. 4? He’s now performing leads as well.

Norm Small retired as professor of speech/drama at Polk State College and producing director of Theatre Winter Haven after almost five decades. He is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from both the Florida Theatre Conference and the American Community Theatre. He also received the Polk Arts Alliance second annual Polk County Artist Hall of Fame Award. He can be reached at TWH1970@aol.com.