Children growing up in New York, Los Angeles or other big cities can access the world of theater pretty easily. But kids living in rural areas, like South Dakota, have to work a little harder to make their way to the stage. That's why, each summer, the Children's Theatre Company of South Dakota gives kids across the state the chance to get involved in an original stage production through its Campfire Tales Theater Camp
"Our goal is just to expose kids to a theater environment. Get them comfortable performing in front of people," says Maggie Conley. The musical theater major at the University of South Dakota helps direct the theater camp. "And the main goal for them is just to have fun with the week. Normally, the kids have a lot of opportunities to do sports and things like that. They don't normally get a lot of exposure to theater. And so it's a good way to expose them to theater and to get them to come out of their shells a little bit."
And as hard as it may be for some kids to come out of their shells, it's sometimes even more difficult for those with special needs. Program director Darla Drew Lerdal says the Dahl Arts Center makes a special effort to reach out to those children and their parents.
"They can be one of the forest animals, they'll get to be in costume, they'll get to be on stage, come on and off with the other kids, be under the lights and interact," Lerdal explains. "We've got a stage and this is really special for them, and for their parents to see them participate. Because this is something that's denied to kids a lot of times in public schools, or even private schools. But here at an arts center and because of this program, we can incorporate them fully in the production."
Several special needs children are taking part in the theater camp this summer. Shae Reub is 13. He is mildly autistic, and is legally blind. But Shae also has an intense desire to perform on stage, and he loves to sing.
Tara Reub says her son has been acting and singing almost since birth, "and he loves it," she adds. She's made it a point not to let Shae's special needs restrict his creative interests. "It's very beneficial socially, and helps him get energy out. He is proud of himself. So he gets to talk about what he's doing instead of just coming home, you know, and not really talking. When his brother and sister share what they're doing in their sports, then Shae gets to share what he's doing in his acting, which makes him fit into the family and feel like he's just the same as the rest of them."
Little Liam Donhiser is also attending Campfire Tales Theater Camp. The 8-year-old lives with Down's syndrome. Kathleen Donhiser says her son is reluctant to be interviewed, but is happy for the chance to get up on stage, "because he has a sense of accomplishment. He sees himself in a group with all children, doing the same things, participating, which is meaningful to him, instead of just standing back and observing. It gives him a sense of pride."
That sense of pride - along with the support of the Dahl staff, the theater camp director and their fellow actors - will help Liam and Shae successfully complete their week of rehearsals.
The Dahl Theater is standing room only as the curtain rises on Campfire Tales, the group's original musical production. With just days to prepare, 40 children who have never worked together before are able to present a quality show to the rousing support of their family and friends.
Program director Darla Drew Lerdal is pleasantly surprised with the performances, but especially by the work of Liam and Shae. She wishes all communities would offer the same opportunities to special needs children. "Sometimes we just don't know how much a person can do until we give them a chance," she observes. "When I see these kids up here, I mean, that might just be enough of a door-opening that they can really go out and do more."
As for Liam and Shae, Campfire Tales is the latest step on their road to being an active part of the world around them.