11-year-old Troy Celik of Fort Kent performs a solo during a rehearsal of "Honk Jr." at Broadway Kids in The County. Standing behind Celik (from left to right) are Ellie Powers, 10, of Fort Fairfield, Kaytlin Crouse, 12, of New Sweden, Grayson Ainsworth, 11, of Bradford, Isabella Albert, 11, of Caribou and Marleia Stevens, 11, of Caribou. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — A Caribou native and accomplished playwright is determined to give local children the musical theater experiences she never had while growing up in the small Aroostook County city.

In a county that stretches 6,672 square miles, only three high schools — Houlton, Presque Isle and Fort Kent — offer drama clubs. Similar programs have become a rarity at elementary and middle schools, because increasingly tight budgets lead to academics, athletics and operational expenses taking priority over the arts.

Such is the case in Caribou’s school district, which cut its high school drama club in 2013 and has never offered a year-round theater program for pre-K to 8 students.

That is why CHS alum Darci Faye relaunched the only non-school-based theater company for children in Aroostook, known as Broadway Kids in The County.

In a small but spacious section of 7 Russ St. — a building that partly houses the office of a property management company — Faye has created a mini rehearsal studio, with individual rooms for song and dance practices, group numbers and for housing costumes and props.

Members of Broadway Kids in the County rehearse the opening number of “Honk Jr.” in Caribou. Pictured from left to right are Isabella Albert, 11, of Caribou, Marleia Stevens, 11, of Caribou, Annie Carlow, 9, of Easton, and Claire Morse, 9, of Presque Isle. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican

This is where 22 performers, ranging from first- to seventh-graders, are completing rehearsals for the musical “Honk Jr,” which they will perform this weekend. The children, who mostly hail from Caribou and nearby towns, received their scripts after auditioning via video and met Faye only days ago.

If the past week is any indication, Faye might have found the next generation of performers from her hometown.

“We started practicing on Sunday and the kids already knew their lines and the songs,” Faye said on Tuesday. “I set aside 30 minutes for them to learn each of the dances, but they learned them in just 10 to 15 minutes each. We’re already practicing the entire show.”

Faye first started Broadway Kids in 2017 and directed several theater camps, musicals and Broadway revues at the Aroostook Centre Mall in Presque Isle. Her venture came after several years of studying playwriting in New York City and seeing one of her plays be nominated for five awards in the city’s Planet Connections Theater Festival.

Broadway Kids initially found moderate success, with at least a dozen children becoming regular performers, but struggled to attract Presque Isle students who already had other theater opportunities within the school district.

In 2019, Faye left Aroostook to attend graduate school for television writing at Boston University, which put Broadway Kids on hiatus for several years. After returning in 2021, she was determined to revive theater opportunities for local children.

The theater company charges fees for students to participate in the programs.

Though Faye took advantage of her high school’s drama club, she said that earlier exposure to theater would have fed her interest more.

“I visited New York City as a kid and I loved everything about it. It’s still my favorite place,” Faye said.

Caribou remains a far cry from Broadway, but Faye and a committed group of past performers and volunteers from as far north as Fort Kent and as far south as Easton and Mapleton are hoping to bring a little New York spirit to County youth.

Some of the littlest cast members of “Honk Jr.” rehearse at Broadway Kids in The County. Pictured from left to right are Addison Drost, 8, of Caribou; Mimi Bitker, 8, of New Sweden, Oona Bitkler, 7, of New Sweden; Simone Palmer, 8, of Presque Isle; and Vivienne Pelletier, 8, of Mapleton. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican

For 15-year-old Mia Brewer of Presque Isle, Broadway Kids is her way of giving back to a program that sparked a newfound confidence within her.

Brewer began performing with Broadway Kids soon after Faye started the program. At first Brewer, who is autistic, was shy and reluctant to fully express herself. But Faye’s casting of her in a lead role led to Brewer becoming one of the most regular and outgoing actors in every production.

Most recently, Brewer had a lead role in her high school’s musical production of “The Addam’s Family.” She credits Broadway Kids with preparing her for larger productions and is now giving back by helping Faye prepare props for “Honk Jr.”

Most students in “Honk Jr.” never took part in theater prior to Broadway Kids, but many have already begun catching the theater bug.

“I love being onstage,” said 11-year-old Isabella Albert of Caribou. “I definitely want to do it again.”

So far Faye’s work has paid off. Tickets for “Honk Jr.” are nearly sold out and she has already unveiled plans for after-school classes, Broadway revues, musical productions and weekend “Mommy and Me” classes for the upcoming school year and summer 2023.

Faye said that as long as local families remain interested, she will keep Broadway Kids going.

“It’s been great to already see these kids blossoming [as performers] and making friends,” Faye said. “Having our new home base be in Caribou is really going to help us reach kids who otherwise don’t have these opportunities.”