There’s No Place Like Theatre for Young Residents of Newtown, CT
Nearly four years ago, a mass shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT shocked the world and devastated the local community. In the wake of that tragedy, Newtown resident Dr. Michael Baroody decided that the performing arts would help inspire confidence, impart strength, and build character in Newtown’s youngsters. Partnering with director Michael Unger, Dr. Baroody founded the 12.14 Foundation and its theatrical production entity, NewArts.
Each summer, NewArts brings in a talented team of nearly 20 theatre professionals, including Broadway-level directors, choreographers, music directors, designers, producers, and technicians, to guide area children in producing high-quality musical theatre that celebrates creativity, collaboration, and community.
This summer, NewArts concludes their season with an ambitious production of THE WIZARD OF OZ. The season, which began with SCHOOL OF ROCK, incorporates nearly 200 children from the Newtown area – onstage, backstage and in the orchestra – as a continuation of NewArts’ mission to use the performing arts to promote healing and strength.
In concert with the work they do onstage, young people at NewArts learn life skills through a program called ARC (“Aspire, Reach, Confidence”), created in collaboration with members of the Yale School of Management and Inspire Corps. The program encourages the children to take the tools they use onstage and apply them to their daily lives. “It’s all about celebrating your strengths and celebrating strengths in others,” Unger says, “which is what theater should do anyway.”
“The participating children will be entertaining the community with a Broadway-quality performance, but more importantly, throughout the rehearsal process, they are learning how to overcome obstacles, face their fears and realize the best versions of themselves,” adds Dr. Baroody.
A New Person
The organization’s first summer production, SEUSSICAL, was produced just months after the tragedy. “It was very successful and really healing,” Unger recalls. “This community wrapped us in their sorrowful and loving and resilient arms. And it wasn’t like we talked about the tragedy– we just spread joy as much as we could, and got them to be a community, and worked really hard together for a really great goal.”
Young actors like Nicole Kolitsas, now age 13, were forever changed by the experience. “After the Newtown tragedy, I lived a life ruled by Fear,” she blogged recently. “I didn’t want to go to school; really I didn’t want to go anywhere… My mother had worked at Sandy Hook Elementary at the time and I didn’t want her to go to work, afraid that it wasn’t over.” After both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer, Nicole knew she could never go back to being herself. But her experience with NewArts helped her emerge “as a new person, a person that grows every summer.”
“I still get scared, “ she writes. “Fear still whispers in my ear and grabs my hand. But I now have the skills to tell Fear that I’m okay, and that I can handle whatever comes my way. Because of NewArts, I can do anything. I can perform in front of thousands of people, I can solve my own problems, I can evaluate myself and find my strengths, and I can tell Fear goodbye.”
Since that first successful production, NewArts has returned each summer with two musical productions, including a world-premiere rock & roll version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. That production became the subject of Midsummer in Newtown, a documentary film that premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and was chosen for the prestigious Spotlight Selection.
Mr. Unger has chosen a different theme for each summer’s productions; this year’s theme is “Unlikely Heroes and Leaders.” Unger feels THE WIZARD OF OZ captures the theme perfectly. “It’s about self-discovery and leadership,” he explains. “Dorothy does not expect to take her friends on this journey and give them what they need, nor does she expect to grow so much as a human being just by running away… Obviously, the big message is you don’t need to go anywhere to find your strength, you don’t need anything other than what’s inside you to feel whole.”
The WIZARD OF OZ cast consists of actors ranging in age from 5 to 20, with older actors taking on the principal roles and younger performers filling out the ensemble. Staffers say seeing the older kids working alongside the younger ones and taking responsibility for their younger colleagues is both empowering and beautiful to watch.
An Iconic Show
With so many amazing musicals to choose from, why did NewArts choose THE WIZARD OF OZ? “It’s iconic to everybody,” Unger says. “It never feels like an old show. It’s amazing, ‘cause a lot of movies that I grew up on, none of these kids have heard of. It’s the one universal title that everyone in the universe knows about.”
And NewArts intends to make this production a very special one, with top-notch production elements, special effects, and even several flying characters. “We tend to do productions ambitiously here,” he explains. “It makes the kids feel really special, makes the shows really special, and the kids always rise to it.”
Audiences lucky enough to see this production are certain to get a lift themselves.
THE WIZARD OF OZ, performed at The Walnut Hill Community Church, will feature two casts, “Tornado” and “Twister,” with the “Tornado” cast performing August 13th at 7pm and August 14th at 2:30pm, and “Twister” cast performing August 13th at 2pm and August 14th at 7:30pm. The show is directed by Mr. Unger, with choreography by Abbey O’Brien and music direction by Jeffrey Saver. For more information on tickets, please visit www.newarts.org.
All Photos by Michelle Spanedda, courtesy of NewArts