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Reflections from our Past

As we celebrate our 60th season, one of our former directors offers some historical perspective on what we know today as the Newington Children’s Theatre Company. In the early 1970s, Julie Murtha was the director of what at the time was a town Parks and Recreation program known simply as the Newington Children’s Theatre. Below is a 2019 interview by our current Board President, Chris DeFrancesco.

Describe the program during those early years.

I was director for four years, and we did three major productions: “Alice in Wonderland,” “Winnie the Pooh,” and “Paul Sills’ Story Theatre.” I double-cast them too. Because we toured on Saturdays, every other Saturday it

would be someone else, and because we had so many kids (around 30) plus the ones who had just little walk-on parts. I didn’t take kids who were younger than 7.

 

We went on tour to perform almost every Saturday from January through May. We had two school buses. We used one for the kids and me and the production manager, and we used another one for the props and the costumes and the set pieces. The production manager worked on the costumes and the scenery, then I also had a person who I paid myself, $25 a performance, she would go with us and help the kids get dressed and do all their makeup. She was a makeup artist, so the mouse really looked like a mouse and the king really looked like a king, and it was amazing.

How did it work with the costumes, lighting, and sound?

The costumes, some parents made some, some I might have given to my dressmaker, but it was all volunteers. I think Parks and Rec must have paid for the fabric. We borrowed some things from other theatre groups. Because we were a touring company we had to work with whatever lights were at the stage. The people from that stage ran the lights; they had their own technicians. We didn’t carry lighting experts with us. And no microphones, no sound, they just projected. They weren’t musicals. We had some background music that was recorded, but we didn’t have any singing.

What else did the program offer back then?
I knew we were going to tour, because they had been touring, and Parks and Rec had been taking care of those arrangements, so all I had to do was pick the play and find the kids. And I also decided, rather than just have them come in and try out for a part and then start right away in rehearsal, they should have some classes. So I began teaching. They gave me a room in the town hall, and it was perfect because it had some steps and a little platform that could be like a stage, and it was a good-sized room.

The instruction was all on-the-job learning, like, “How do you develop a character,” and I would have them do some improvisation with it. The kids who got it really got it right away, and the ones who didn’t we had to bring them along. It was after school for grades 1 through 4 or 5, and then grades 6 and up. I had a separate group for teenagers, and it was called the Master Key and Company. It was a branch of the Newington Children’s Theatre. The reason it was called the Master Key and Company is because teenage kids were the only ones who were allowed to have a key to get into that room, so they would go in and open up, and then I would come from Wethersfield. They knew how to set up for the scenes. We did all our rehearsals and everything in there until we could get onto the stage. Once we got onto the stage of course then we could really do a good job with it.

How did it work with casting?

They would read for the part, I would have them do improvisation – What would you do if you were a mouse? What would you do if you were the queen? – not having them just reading from the script. And also the way they looked, the way they walked and talked. I just cast them, it didn’t seem difficult to me at the time. And it wasn’t so competitive either, because it probably wasn’t as well organized as it is today. But I couldn’t cast everybody. Some didn’t get parts. There just weren’t enough parts, but there were enough were walk-ons and I tried to use as many as I could.

How do you think children’s theatre helps kids in their growth and development?

They get self-confidence, they get spontaneity, they get ensemble work, learning how to give and take with other people in a group. You don’t have to be the star, but you can still contribute. They learn good English, they learn how to speak clearly and to present themselves and they learn how to interact with an audience, which is like another big body out there, which is also confidence-building. There are actors today who say they still have stage fright, they’re still wrecks before they go on stage, but to then be able to have that kind of self-command when you are on the stage, let go of yourself and be this other person, it’s a remarkable achievement that will serve you well in life.

I had a friend who worked at the Newington Children’s Hospital, which was in town at that time. She worked with kids who had problems, they were overactive or shy. She was a social worker, and she could tell which kids I had in the theatre with me, because they were more alert, their attention span was better, they were more willing to do different things they were asked to do.

I’m just all for this as being a fabulous thing for kids to do. I’m big on doing improvisation because it’s a fantastic background. It just almost comes right out of your creative self. It’s quite a wonderful thing.

How gratifying is it to realize that the program you helped build so many years ago is the state’s longest-running nonprofit children theatre in the state?

Very much so! When I did hear that, it made me really, really happy. I thought, “That is fantastic!” I’m just thrilled because I was there near the beginning. I was actually moved to tears. And the fact that it’s still going, it’s quite wonderful.

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