By Carol Longoria
the Durham VOICE
Voices poured out of Walltown Children’s Theater as parents and children rushed into rehearsal. “Let’s go through the party scene,” directed Cynthia Penn, artistic director and founder of the Walltown Children’s Theater.
The voices died down as the cast scrambled into place.
Since September cast members have gathered five nights a week at Walltown Children’s Theater, 1225 Berkeley Street in Durham, in preparation for their annual performance of the Durham Nutcracker.
The Durham Nutcracker is a modern spin of the old classic. The musical mixes the familiar songs from Tchaikovsky’s original score with voices and rhythms of modern-day Durham. There will be six performances held beginning Dec. 7 at the Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris Street in Durham.
The Durham Nutcracker concept originated with Wanona Satcher, founding producer of the musical production and currently an urban designer with the City of Durham. Satcher said that she wanted “to bring various cultures together through music and dance; a production that reflected the diverse community of Durham.” She also said, “It was time that Durham had a Nutcracker performance of its own.” Additionally, Satcher wanted to introduce the community to classical ballet and felt the Nutcracker would be the perfect avenue.
Satcher said that she and Penn collaborated late into the night many times that first year in 2010. The final production became an introduction of classical ballet to the Durham community, as well as an introduction of modern-day Durham to the larger community of North Carolina and beyond.
Satcher said, “I am not a performer, and that is where Cynthia excels.” She said that she focused on research and promotion while Penn brought the artistic expression by way of choreography, acting and music.
The Durham Nutcracker:
The Durham version of the Nutcracker “uses the classic Nutcracker music with a mix of contemporary music from local talent,” Satcher said. The script is also updated annually to better fit the casting that changes from year to year.
Penn said, “The script continues to change every year.” Penn said that Walltown Children’s Theater is “one of the few productions that cast children as the main performers of the play.” Penn explains that most productions of the Nutcracker use primarily adults.
“We use mostly children,” Penn said. “Another difference is that we have made the Nutcracker a musical,” she continued. The ‘Durham Nutcracker’ uses singers and actors which bring a voice to the traditional Nutcracker story that contains only classical music.
This year’s production is being directed by Karen Dacons-Brock. Penn said, “We desperately needed someone like Karen to direct the play.” There are so many aspects to putting a production like this on, and Karen “pulls it all together,” said Penn.
The ‘Durham Nutcracker,’ with a 45 member cast and many additional volunteers the performance, required a venue that could better host the production this year. Satcher said that even though this year’s venue holds fewer audience members, the facility allows for an expanded production, including larger backstage and stage areas.
“This year there will be six performances beginning Dec. 7th with the last performance on Dec. 14th,” said Satcher.
Play within a Play
The Walltown Children’s Theater version of the Nutcracker provides a behind the scenes look at the production of the ballet told as the story of the audition beforehand and ending with the actual performance.
The production opens with the character of Sarah auditioning for the main role in the ballet. Sarah originally is the understudy, but through patience and persistence, Sarah becomes the primary actress.
Penn said that the play demonstrates the characteristics we want young people to develop. According to Penn, another important component is the “anti-bullying” theme that appears in the behind-the-scenes rendition.
The role of Sarah is played by Eileena Boyce, a sixth grader at Durham School of the Arts.
Jacqueline Boyce, Eileena’s mother, said, “Eileena has been Sarah for the last two years.” Boyce said that because of the major role, her daughter practices five days a week. “Her role will involve acting, singing and dancing,” Boyce said.
Although rehearsals for the production are five days a week, Brock said she “spends two days a week working exclusively on speaking roles and scenes.”
Walltown Children’s Theater:
Walltown Children’s Theater was founded in 2000 with a vision “to inspire hope and creativity for all children throughout the city,” according to the website. Penn says, the school serves over 100 students with ages ranging from 3 ½ to 18 years old and offers “professional training on a sliding scale according to parent income.”
Penn said, “Walltown Children’s Theater allows children to explore what they love,” and offers a variety of classes in dance, drama and music year-round.
Penn said the vision of Walltown Children’s Theater has expanded over the last 12 years, but that it stays true to the original vision of “enhancing the lives of young people in Durham through the arts.”
“Walltown not only trains young people, it has become a laboratory for someone to start in the arts,” Penn said. Other art institutions require instructors to have professional experience. “We train young people by allowing college students the opportunity to instruct,” she said.
“Walltown does more than train in the arts. We teach children to have decorum and to behave professionally,” said Penn.
In addition to the music and arts mission, Walltown Children’s Theater is an open Feeding Site for the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, Penn said. The program provides children who receive free or reduced lunches at school with two meals a day even when school is not in session.
More than just theatrical productions, Walltown Children’s Theater strives to meet the needs of the community. According to Brock, the Walltown Children’s Theater conducts summer camps and classes with a variety of productions every year. Brock said, “In the spring Walltown Children’s Theater will perform ‘The Pied Piper.’”
Penn said, “’The Pied Piper‘ is a story in which children try to warn parents to follow through with their promises.” Penn said she really liked the story because it “demonstrates that children have a voice and it’s okay for them to express what they believe.”
Penn firmly believes that children are capable of achieving great things saying, “People are amazed that young children could put on such a production.”