Every year, in the time of the winter that is especially cold and quiet, something quite lively and extraordinary happens in Burnt Hills.
One hundred children, from ages 5 to 14, and more than a dozen adults take the stage to act, sing and dance together at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School.
On Feb. 3 and 4, the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Theatre for Children will perform two plays, “Treasure Island” and “Pinocchio,” in a double playbill.
Run entirely by community volunteers since 1959, when it was launched by a group of parents, the troupe is devoted to exposing children to the joy of theater.
For the past five years, Tracy Blowers has been the theater’s director. She lives in Charlton with her children: 11-year-old twins Max and Ben, and 8-year-old daughter Annalise.
The Gazette talked to Blowers a few weeks before show time, when the amateur actors were feverishly rehearsing:
Q: You are directing 100 children and 13 adults in two plays performed three times over two days. Why do you do this?
A: There’s something about watching the kids go through this experience. Most of these kids are never going to go on to do this. If they go on to high school [theater], it will be a big deal. Some parents have cried because, for the first time, their child was part of something. The child says “I might not be the coolest kid in school, but here, with theater people, I belong,” because we’re all kind of odd in our own way. They get so much out of it. That’s so satisfying to me.
Q: What’s the hardest part?
A: The only time I don’t love it is when I am casting. Because if you are doing “Pinocchio,” guess who everyone wants to be? I try to mitigate any disappointment. I want everyone to feel real good about being involved.
Q: How about shy kids? Can they do this?
A: Oh yeah. A lot of actors are shy. If you talk to them offstage, they can barely look at you.
Q: Are the parents paying anything for their children to do this?
A: No, they don’t pay. What they do is help; they help a lot.
Q: Why don’t you limit the number of actors?
A: I just can’t do that. The idea is to experience being part of a show. They audition, but everyone will get some part. In “Treasure Island,” the little kids who can’t read yet don’t have to audition, and we call them “the little pirates.” We’ve written little sea ditties for them.
The kids perform on a big stage, they have this huge auditorium. I have a friend who is a professional photographer. He does head shots for everybody. So when people come in to see the show, up and down the hall, their bios and head shots are there. They love that. Whether they’ve said two lines or danced across the stage or they’ve got 109 lines, they’ve all shared this great experience. It’s a lot of fun.
Q: What’s the history of this theater?
A: They were originally called the Pashley Players. It was born out of parents, PTA members, wanting to find a way to raise money for the PTA. Fifty-three years later, it’s a community group, it’s not affiliated with the schools. But there’s still a very close relationship.
Q: How much money do you raise in a performance?
A: It depends on how much the show costs. I think last year each school got $500. Sometimes there is a specific thing that the school would like. For example, the [theater] curtains were falling down, were ripped. The group keeps enough money to launch the next show, but there’s not a lot in reserve because what they make, they donate. And they’ve been doing that for years and years and years.
Q: Why are there two productions?
A: Historically, it was a show done by adults for kids. If you had a child and you were in the show, your child became part of it, as set dressing or townsfolk. They didn’t have lines, but they could be part of it. When I came on board, we did “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and we used kids for the umpa lumpas. They sang all the songs, they had choreography. The next year, more kids showed up. So I approached the producers and I said: “Would it be OK to do a show with just kids?” This year is the first year that we’ve combined speaking parts for kids and adults. Just three years ago, I was doing just one show with kids at one time of the year and one show with just adults at a different time of the year. Last year was the first year that we put both shows on the same playbill.
Q: What ages are the children in “Pinocchio”?
A: The kids that can audition for speaking parts are in grades third through sixth.
Q: And in “Treasure Island”?
A: There are about 20 little kids in “Treasure Island,” and there are 10 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders and 13 adults.
Q: Did you grow up around here?
A: I went to Waterford High School, then I lived in New York and in Cooperstown, and I settled here when I got married.
Q: What’s your theater background?
A: I went to Pace University. I majored in journalism. After college, I moved to New York with the idea that I was going to be an actor. I did off-off-off Broadway. In New York, I realized that there are a lot of talented waiters and waitresses. And my mentor in college, my theater professor, said to me: If you can find anything else in the world, anything, that will make you happy professionally, do that, and just do acting and theater for fun. When I moved back here, I did community theater until I started my own group, Red Pants Theater. For years, I was a corporate trainer. I worked for CHP and Kaiser, but I always did theater as a hobby.
Q: Children’s theater director is a volunteer job. How do you earn a living?
A: I work at Albany Medical College with med students. It’s called Standardized Patient, and I’m a trainer for the med students. They learn the right way to ask patients questions, how to deliver bad news, how to deal with people with depression and anxiety, and we do that through actor portrayal.
Q: Why did you start Red Pants Theater in Clifton Park?
A: When I came back here, I did a lot of theater, primarily acting. Everything was nonmusical. But I really wanted to do a theater group for teen-agers, with shows that weren’t musicals because I don’t sing, and that’s what they do in schools, musicals. I approached the Clifton Park Elks, and they gave me the space, they gave me money, and the first shows were at the Elks, and then at Shen, in the little theater. I did that until I got pregnant with my twins. And then I had my daughter. That theater is on hiatus.
Q: Do your own children perform?
A: My daughter has always been involved in some small way. My boys have done backstage crew stuff. But this year, they are all involved. Two of them are in “Pinocchio,” not big parts, but they have some lines. And my other son is in “Treasure Island.”
Q: Do you go to local theater?
A: I try to see as many shows as I can around here. There’s fantastic theater here.
The last play I saw was “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Curtain Call. It was great.
Q: What’s your favorite Broadway show?
A: “Les Mis” is my favorite show of all time. Yes, everyone is dead at the end. It’s not a toe-tapper. But it’s transcendent. It’s so moving.”