June 12, 2024
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June 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Laurie Walton Leads Riverdale Y’s Theater Programs Through a COVID Season

On August 6, the Riverdale Y’s Performing Arts Program wrapped up its season with two sold-out summer-stage performances of Legally Blonde, The Musical Jr. The theater companies supported 70 junior, 40 teen and 40 adult actors in multiple productions throughout the year, with director Laurie Walton incorporating COVID restrictions and precautions.

Walton’s program objectives for young children and teens are to expose them to the joy of theater, help them learn to be part of a supportive and respectful community, work hard towards a goal and enjoy the experiences of live theater. “When I started, I intended to nurture kids going into theater careers. I started it as audition-only, but I learned early that kids need programs like this for a variety of reasons, the least of which was to become professional actors, more to boost their self-esteem and confidence and to understand what it’s like to work together on a project. So I shifted goals.”

When she took over the adult theater program in 2007, her goal was “to provide an outlet for people who thought they were going to go into theater or did it a lot when they were in school, or really liked to sing but don’t have time. For adults, it provides a social outlet to explore talents they once had or still have and would like to tap into.”

When COVID hit in March 2020, the juniors were in rehearsal for a production of Frog and Toad Jr. The teens were preparing their production of RENT. Frog and Toad was cancelled but, using masks and outdoor space, the teens eventually performed RENT. “The first day I brought the teens back together for rehearsal, in late June, half the kids seemed sad. They seemed just shell-shocked. They had trepidations. They did keep their distance because I wanted them to, but they just weren’t the team I left a few months before. But, within a week, it was so joyous. They were happy to be together again, they followed the rules, they kept their masks on, and it didn’t matter to them. It was hard to get used to listening to each other talk and sing with masks on. They were so happy when they actually performed for their parents in August.”

Walton noted, “In all the years, I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a lot of very grateful parents who’ve been happy that their kids were part of the program. The gratitude I received from parents when they got to see their kids doing something they loved, after all the isolation and fear, was moving and profound like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was quite an emotional journey to get to the first performance out there.”

When asked why the show must go on, Walton responded, “It’s partly because I know how much this means to the families and kids. I know what they invest in this program. I’m fortunate because my retention rate with my teen program is 98%. Kids start with me when they’re 12 and stay until they graduate. ‘Senior Goodbye’ is a big tradition that we do. I bring out each senior and I talk about their time in the program. I didn’t want these seniors to just leave our world that they’ve been in since seventh grade without a proper goodbye.”

Walton added, “My family was not happy with me, but they supported me. To be honest, they know how committed I am. My own kids grew up in the program. They were scared about COVID and my health.” Walton assured her family that there would be distancing and masks. “It was just something I felt I needed to do for the kids.”

During the pandemic, activities for children were curtailed or eliminated.

Yael Fraenkel felt it was important for her daughter to participate in Junior Rising Stars. Fraenkel explained, “At the most basic level, we continue to have Clara return to Junior Rising Stars because she greatly enjoys performing. At the same time, the activity helps to boost her confidence, and improve her social skills. Junior Rising Stars also helps her learn patience, dedication and following directions.”

Anat Barber of Riverdale added, “The program provides a wonderful opportunity for kids to express themselves and develop in ways that tap into different parts of who they are. My children worked with others toward a collective effort, across different strengths to put forward a final product they can be proud of. Being able to connect with other kids and find an outlet for the tension this year brought upon us was so valuable.”

The new season begins this fall. Junior Rising Stars will soon audition for a November outdoor production of Matilda Jr. Moving forward, Walton hopes to get back into the actual theater.

By Judy Berger

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