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East Lyme - Twelve young actresses were pretending on a recent afternoon at Flanders Elementary School to travel through clouds, stand on quicksand and walk over hot coals.
Amid laughs, the students in the East Lyme Regional Theater program acted out the various scenarios - each in their own style. They then moved on to play the role of a fox aiming for hard-to-reach grapes in an Aesop's fable and offered feedback on each other's performance.
The second through fourth graders were participating in the theater program, run by Artistic Director Erin Sousa-Stanley and Education Director Cheryl Whipple. The program is expanding from a summer initiative to offer a year-round curriculum.
The program allows students to have fun and be creative as they build risk-taking, communication and critical thinking skills, said Whipple, the program's education director who was teaching the students.
"It's nice for them to have a group to be safe and take risks," she said.
"We are interested in educating the whole child," she added. "We really want children to develop creativity and be engaged in a process that builds their confidence and social skills."
The theater program, which offers drama productions and classes, began four years ago, with a parent's search for a summer theater program for her child. The parent, whose child Sousa-Stanley was teaching private voice lessons, recommended Sousa-Stanley start her own theater program. The Parks & Recreation Department, the program's sponsor, was enthusiastic about the idea.
"We're grateful for the support of the town and the parks and recreation department," said Sousa-Stanley. The theater program has offered summer productions of "Children of Eden," "The Wiz" and "Once on this Island," at East Lyme High School.
After hearing residents' requests for a year-round arts program, Sousa-Stanley and Whipple then approached the School Superintendent and Board of Education with the idea earlier this school year. The school district offered space for the program, and a round of classes and clubs began in January. This winter's offerings include a youth musical performance.
The program, which will offer another slate of classes in March, is aiming to run year-round offerings starting in the fall. The program is open to people of all ages, from a "Mommy and Me" program for infants to adult acting classes.
Sousa-Stanley and Whipple said the program's inclusivity is its hallmark. The program welcomes people from all towns, ages and encourages students with special needs to participate, she said. The actors are of all ages from 3 to 80 years old.
"It's a multi-generational experience that brings together all age groups," said Whipple.
Over the course of the program, participants tend to really bond with each other, said Sousa-Stanley. "From our summer programs to our classes, we just become a family," she said.
Whipple said the program offers a nurturing environment where students can grow into themselves. Actors may experience stage fright, but then realize they were able to conquer their fears - which builds confidence, she said.
Sousa-Stanley said the program encourages people to "step outside of the box" and explore their own niche, whether it's an acting class for a hobby or the beginning of a career.
"Our main mission is to educate the whole person and allow them the opportunity to shine," she said.
More information on the program is available at www.eastlymeregionaltheater.com. Registration for the next classes begins March 7. The upcoming session's classes are from $75 and up for town residents; $90 and up for non-town residents.