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Whidbey Children’s Theater goes ‘old school’

Cait Cassee, interim executive director of Whidbey Children’s Theater, shows off the space at the Langley Middle School auditorium. The youth theater group signed a lease with South Whidbey School District for in-kind services.  - Celeste Erickson / The Record
Cait Cassee, interim executive director of Whidbey Children’s Theater, shows off the space at the Langley Middle School auditorium. The youth theater group signed a lease with South Whidbey School District for in-kind services.
— image credit: Celeste Erickson / The Record

Dreaming big is what Whidbey Children’s Theater does well.

It allows young thespians to take the stage and perform within the confines of their characters.

When the theater group sought a larger space for less money, that dream was a bit wilder than the one Dorothy has in its current production of “Wizard of Oz.”

Now that dream is a reality.

Whidbey Children’s Theater, or WCT, is the new tenant at the Langley Middle School auditorium. The theater group will rent the 580-seat building at an enviable price: for in-kind services and utilities fees.

“It’s going to be hard to come up with the rent with in-kind services alone,” said Cait Cassee, interim executive director at Whidbey Children’s Theater.

“The only way for WCT to be successful as a business is to be successful in meeting its vision.”

An in-kind service lease essentially means money is not required for the space. Instead, the theater group is on the hook for facilities management. Someone from Whidbey Children’s Theater must schedule use of the auditorium and, perhaps more importantly, the limited parking at the campus.

With Whidbey Island Center for the Arts occupying the north end of the campus, Island Dance in the two-story building and a video production company in the former district office building, there are lots of interests competing for fewer than 100 parking spaces along Camano Avenue.

Ideally, having a scheduling manager from WCT will solve any parking problems by avoiding overbooking events on the campus.

“There’s a premium on those parking spaces,” Cassee said. “We need to coordinate with those other agencies.”

The district was legally able to lease out the space as long as it did not spend any money on the new service, Superintendent Jo Moccia said.

Rather than occasionally using the auditorium for school assemblies, a geography bee and its eighth-grade commencement, the auditorium will bustle with stage activity.

“The LMS campus is really becoming an arts campus,” Moccia said.

“The possibilities are really endless.”

Boosting arts programs in the school district became a priority earlier this school year. District leaders held a few community conversations to give parents, students, teachers and other in-district community members their say in how the schools worked. Two of the common threads were the arts and utilizing existing resources on South Whidbey.

Bringing the children’s theater next door to the middle school served both purposes.

As part of the lease agreement, students may eventually visit the children’s theater for school trips. Previously, classes traveled to Seattle Children’s Theater for an experience in peer performances.

Rather than hopping on a bus, taking a ferry and driving, now students can walk out of the main building a few dozen feet and watch a production.

“We can involve more students,” Cassee said. “We can bring art to a dwindling art curriculum.

“It’s a little bit more fun and little bit more relevant because the kids are in the productions.”

Nine years of on-stage memories and dozens of productions in the Porter Building come to an end, however. Whidbey Children’s Theater, which has operated for three decades, chose to leave the Porter Building for free rent. However, the new space affords the children’s theater with opportunities to reach more students, integrate itself into the school’s curriculum and revitalize an old building.

“I’m going through this historic old building; it’s beloved,” Cassee said.

“It’s breathing new life into that building and using existing community resources to do that.”

Moccia said a drama program has not existed at the middle school for several years and no positions were eliminated as part of the lease agreement. South Whidbey students instead have an opportunity at taking in a play, working on screenwriting, costume and set design, audio operations and lighting.

“No jobs were lost,” Moccia said. “We have added possibilities.”

The Porter Building theater has room for 80 seats. Langley Middle School’s auditorium has a capacity of 580. Such a large jump in capacity created a technical issue for Whidbey Children’s Theater. When it puts on a production of “Wizard of Oz,” the theater has to pay royalties. Paying for 580 seats when realistically it would not sell out each seat for multiple performances would cost too much.

To avoid paying more for royalties than the theater may make, Cassee said they will devise a way to close off many of the seats with a velvet rope or possibly curtains.

For Cassee, working with the school district to provide more theater in the schools was an obvious union. Theater and creativity allows students to exercise parts of their minds in ways they may not otherwise.

“People sign up for a production at WCT because they want to be on stage in a production,” she said. “They sign up for the second, third, and fourth time because they found a safe place that encourages them, teaches them about teamwork. You have to know the people behind you have your back.”

“At a time in their lives when these kids are trying to figure out who they are … the theater gives them a place to be whoever they want to be on any given day.”

 

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