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Youth theater excels in building skills and confidence

Learning music and theater in school correlates strongly with higher achievement in both math and reading, and brain research has shown that not only does music improve skills in math and reading, it also promotes creativity, social development, personality adjustment, and self-worth. The Cobre Valley Center for the Arts is helping to fill that need. The youth theater program in Globe has touched hundreds of kids for nearly 20 years and is creating new avenues to reach more even children.

Paul Tunis, director of the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts (CVCA), remembers his introduction to the performing arts in the first grade. That year, Globe High School put on a production of The Hobbit for the students at Copper Rim Elementary School.

His older cousin played the part of Gandalf, and Linda Oddonetto, then a high school student – now mother, president of the United Fund of Globe Miami, administrative assistant to the Globe city manager and head of the Parent Teacher Organization at Copper Rim – was also in the play. He remembers the costumes, the set and he remembers being consumed by the story.

Tristan Burns starred in his first play with SYMTP when he was 7, where he was cast as Pugsley in the Adams family. Now 14, he has performed in dozens of productions including youth theater and community productions at the Center for the Arts. Photo by Kenneth Chan.

That was when he fell in love with theater. He told himself, “One day I will do that, too.”

In 2015, when Oddonetto reached out to Tunis about implementing a performing arts program at Copper Rim Elementary School, he jumped at the opportunity to bring the arts back to his alma mater. Copper Rim, like so many schools suffering from funding cuts, lacked art-focused programs.

Remembering the impact of theater on his own life from his first-grade experience, Tunis believed exposure to the arts at a young age would help children be better students and better people.

Tunis and Oddonetto discussed the program, acquired funds from United Fund and went to work. In 2016, Miami’s Dr. Charles Bejarano Elementary School joined the program.

With the program now in its third year, Tunis, together with Leslie Kang Kim, youth music director and educator at CVCA, are working to broaden and enrich the minds of local children through the arts. Last semester, Moon Thomas, a 16-year-old junior at Globe High, joined the team and received class credit for her hands-on teaching assistance.

Moon Thomas is a veteran of the Summer Youth Musical Theater Program and recently joined the outreach team working to bring theater and the arts to the local schools. Here she performs in the 2016 production of Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Kenneth Chan.

Thomas brings her experience as a veteran participant in the Summer Youth Musical Theater Program (SYMTP), as well as her contagious enthusiasm. She said she plans to become an elementary school teacher and loved the opportunity to be with children in the Copper Rim/Bejarano outreach program.

As a teenager, Tunis remembers feeling out of place and alone among his peers. Not interested in the usual high school intrigues, he had ideas and creative projects he wanted to manifest. His classmates were interested in other things.

He went to Globe High, where he acted in and directed a few school productions, but he passed up an opportunity to act in the newly created SYMTP that began in 1998 with Suzanne Lederman as production director and Diana Tunis (Paul’s mother) as costume designer. Paul was 14 years old then and told his mother he wasn’t interested in acting in “a stupid musical.”

Today, he says there were two reasons for his disdain: one, he would have been the only teenager among a lot of elementary school children, and two, he had a secret fear of singing in front of people. Tunis remained close to theater, however, lending a hand behind the scenes with props, sets and stage effects. He described his younger self as “a real DIY kind of kid.” He accepted being different as the way it was and continued to march to the beat of his own drum.

Last spring the outreach group incorporated puppets and story telling at the Charles Bejarano Elementary School. They will be doing this again this year. Courtesy Photo.

After Tunis finished high school, he went to Arizona State University then to New York, where he got a master’s degree in creative writing. On summer breaks, he returned home to Globe and worked with the SYMTP program.

Under Suzanne and Diana, the program had grown to include children ages 8 through 18 and evolved into a small community – of kids who love creating something out of nothing. That was when Tunis had the epiphany that the theater program provided local youth with a place to meet and express their own unique qualities, where different was good, where it was safe to try new things without fear of judgment.

That sense of support and connection was what he had so longed for as a teen. Inspired by that vision, at 29, Paul returned to Globe for more than a summer job; he returned to run SYMTP.

 The maximum number of children the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts stage and staff can handle at one time is about 44 children, so despite the program being open to all, some children are turned away for lack of space.

This year, SYMTP is trying something new in hopes of reaching more children. The program has been divided into three groups: Sprouts (6-8), Seedlings (9-12), and the summer XYMTP (11-18). The Sprouts and Seedlings will be open to all children in those age groups and will be performing The Jungle Book-Kids during February and March.

Thomas said she is excited to be an intern student director for those productions. XYMTP is for the older and more experienced youth actors who are chosen after auditions. The first XYMTP production hit the stage in the winter of 2016 with the play James and the Giant Peach. This summer, XYMTP will perform Les Miserables, and kids are already preparing for auditions that will be held in March.

Last spring, Tunis finally conquered his fear of singing in front of people in Peter and the Starcatcher when he played the evil Black Stache. Paul said, “I’m always telling the kids to get out of their comfort zone. I needed to do the same.”

The new outreach program was made possible in large part with funding from United Fund of Globe-Miami. Board President, Linda Oddonetto and Executive Director Maryn Belling seen here at the 2016 Fundraising kick off held at the Cobre Valley Country Club. Photo by LCGross

Fourteen-year-old Tristan Burns, a freshman at Globe High, was in his first play with SYMTP when he was 7. Among the many roles he played on the CVCA stage, Pugsley in the Adams Family was especially memorable.

What he likes about youth theater is being with other kids who like doing the same things and, “you can be something else without people judging you.” He said he learned he had to be ambitious. “You can’t hold yourself back,” he said.

When asked about his future, Burns said he plans to go to ASU to get a degree in financial development, then to culinary school. He hopes to one day open a restaurant.

The first play Thomas performed in was The Pied Piper when she was 8 years old, and she has stayed connected to youth theater at CVCA since then.

When she and her family moved away from Globe to live in Gold Canyon for two years she signed up for a theater workshop there and was sadly disappointed. She said it was “very cold, not the same.”

The arrival of the Giant Peach at the Courthouse . Photo by LCGross

Even though she lived an hour away, she commuted to the workshops in Globe when she could. When her family returned to the area, she said she was happy to be home again. Anyone who saw the production of James and the Giant Peach in 2016 will remember her performance as mean Aunt Spiker or her transformation from ugly witch to beautiful young maiden in Into the Woods.

Thomas calls the CVCA Theater an “unsung hero, breathing so much soul into Globe and fostering community.”

About Libby Rooney

Libby Rooney

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