Tracy Whiteside often hears from parents how much performing onstage helps build their children’s confidence and self-esteem. And during 15 years of teaching theater to kids, she has seen for herself the changes in their lives.
As the founder of the St. Charles-based Self Esteem For Life Foundation, it made sense to offer instruction for more than just kids hoping to land a role in a show. That’s when GodStage, a new children’s theater class, was born. And with it, Whiteside opened the world of theater to a broader group.
“Any child can benefit,” Whiteside says. “I love working kids. They’re so open to learn.”
The first sessions of GodStage launched this month in Aurora, Elburn and Naperville.
Whiteside’s students range from performers looking to sharpen their skills, to athletes on break between seasons, to children struggling with bullying and low self-esteem. In her eyes, every one of them has a role to play and a life skill to learn in the class.
Catey Kinnison, mom of Malea, a GodStage student, has seen this herself in interactions with Whiteside through productions at the Fox Valley Repertory Theatre.
“The language (Tracy) chooses, her compassion for the kids and her patience are exemplary,” Kinnison says. “She ‘gets’ kids.”
In her GodStage classes, Whiteside creates an environment focused on making kids comfortable. Students are always paired with a buddy, so they have a partner for breaks and exercises.
“Everybody has a friend in class,” she explains.
A typical class opens with a warm up, such as a game where students take turns adding a sentence to a story. Afterward they gather in groups to create their own skits, which they act out informally.
Whiteside then eases kids onto the stage, starting with simple, yet practical drills related to theater such as practicing the proper way to audition.
Every session also includes a mini-musical production, currently Cinderella. Whiteside assigns each child a specially selected part — no child has a lead role. Here, all roles are equal. Whiteside’s scripts ensure a solo for every performer and an identical number of speaking lines.
Students rehearse every week, going through staging, choreography and acting. During the final week, parents are invited to watch a performance. For some of those kids, it’s their first time on the stage for anything. And the results can be surprising.
“She convinces kids to do what they didn’t know they were capable of,” Kinnison says. “She puts kids in roles you would never expect.”
Whiteside acknowledges witnessing students over the years who started off too shy to say a single line and two years later are performing regularly onstage. But as Whiteside emphasizes, it’s not all about performing.
“They also learn life skills: respect, integrity, perseverance, humility.”
And they learn it in a safe environment, where everyone is expected to support and encourage each other.
Whiteside weaves self-esteem and life skills concepts in with instruction on the art of theater. And she offers students opportunities to practice those skills alongside singing, dancing and acting.
“Malea came out excited and energized,” Kinnison says of her daughter’s experience with GodStage.
“We’re excited about the prospects … the opportunities for growth and development.”
Ultimately, Whiteside wants to see the class bring out the best in all of her students — even those who might never go on to perform in public. “Most kids aren’t going to be stars,” she says. “But there is so much to learn besides theater.”
And that after all is her philosophy for GodStage.
“It’s about the kids, not the production.”