Third grade students at the Warren Community School participate in a new theater arts program provided by the local Waldo Theatre. Credit: Courtesy of JoDell Torrey

For elementary school students, especially in Maine’s rural areas, it can be rare to have in-school exposure to theater classes or other drama offerings.

But a new program being offered by the recently revitalized Waldo Theatre, in Waldoboro, is bringing theater arts education directly into two third-grade classrooms within Regional School Unit 40. The district’s middle schools and high schools have drama offerings, but there are fewer theater opportunities within its elementary schools. Organizers hope by exposing kids to the basics of acting and theater, students will gain skills that will bolster them academically and in other aspects of life, as well.

“A lot of times theater doesn’t come as an offering until high school and at that point largely what is offered is being in a play or being in a musical. By having the opportunity to be exposed to theater arts earlier in your learning career, theater arts isn’t just something you can use as a performance outlet but it’s something you can learn from in terms of humanity, really,” Mia Branco, a teaching artist working with the Waldo Theatre on the program, said.

The program, InterAct, launched this fall in two third-grade classrooms at Miller Elementary School, in Waldoboro, and the Warren Community School. Recently obtained grant funding will allow the program to expand this spring into three more RSU 40 elementary school classrooms, this time at schools in Union, Washington and Friendship. The grant funding will also allow the programming to continue into the fall of 2022, though it’s not determined which RSU 40 school will have the program then.

Branco, and Waldo Theatre Executive Director Kate Fletcher, work with participating classrooms once a week over a 16-week period. After introducing the students to the basic tools of acting ― body, voice, mind and imagination ― they develop a story with the students and then begin transforming that into a short, informal play.

The intent was to have the classrooms perform the stories they’ve developed at the end of the 16-week period, which is coming to an end this month, at the Waldo Theatre. However, due to the ongoing pandemic, the stories will instead be filmed in the classrooms and shared digitally with students’ families and teachers.  

Students watch during a classroom performance. Credit: Courtesy of JoDell Torrey

Branco and Fletcher said the experience also allows students to build confidence, communication and self expression skills as well as deepen their connections with each other.

“I hope they see their creativity as an asset,” Branco said. “I hope that they see that their ideas and their imagination has worth and that they can use that as a way to connect with others and to understand the world around them.”

RSU 40 Assistant Superintendent Christina Wotton said the district was excited about the opportunity to partner with the Waldo Theatre on the new program as a way to bolster what they can offer to their elementary school students.

In the past, some of RSU 40’s elementary schools have had a traveling theater company visit for a week to work with students and put on a performance. Wotton said it’s a wonderful experience but it’s only a week long, and it’s been on pause due to the pandemic. This has been even more robust.

RSU 40 is one of the more rural school districts in the immediate midcoast area, and the Waldo Theatre ― which reopened less than a year ago after being shutted for seven years ― is the closest theater organization. Feltcher, Branco and Wotton said that by bringing InterAct into schools directly, it can remove barriers to exposure for students who might not be able to access theater programs outside of school.

Through InterAct, as well as a growing summer camp program and potentially future after school programs, Fletcher and Branco hope the Waldo Theatre can once again become a place where children can feel connected to the arts and their community.

“Our art spaces, museums, theaters, those types of spaces can seem very or feel exclusive sometimes,” Branco said.  “I hope [this program] has that ripple effect for these youth as they grow up to know that they have opportunities to engage with their communities in these cultural institutions, such as the Waldo Theater. That they understand what is happening there and that they feel like they can utilize that resources and the community that theater has.”