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Preschoolers Gain Sensory Skills Through The Magic Of Theater

By Janet Eastman

Mail Tribune

More than anything else in the world, redheaded Ollie Tegarden wanted to be a tree snake. On a recent Monday, the 5-year-old got to act like one for an improvised performance on the Ashland Community Center stage.

As teacher Eve Smyth of the Ashland Children’s Theatre directed other preschoolers, Ollie stayed focused and in character, slithering underneath a make-believe tree.

Without noticing, Ollie was learning through visual, auditory and kinesthetic experiences.

At the end of his weeklong summer theater workshop, he will understand about stage presence.

In addition, he will have practiced how to listen and express himself nonverbally, except for the occasional hiss.

For children of all ages and interests, participating in art activities improves brain development, motor skills and sensory aesthetics, according to the Oregon Department of Education. They know how to think on their feet.

Stepping in when schools have to cut theater curricula are organizations such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has a summer program for high school seniors, and Ashland Children’s Theatre, for kids 4 to 17.

Ollie is one of more than 2,000 children who have enrolled in classes with Ashland Children’s Theatre since it started in 2004 with Oregon Stage Works.

In the summer workshops, which start at $60, budding Daniel Radcliffes and Jennifer Lawrences — or not — practice improv and stage combat. They also create narratives and layered characters, and learn how to recite Shakespeare and other playwrights’ words.

Each workshop ends with a performance before friends and family.

Ollie’s mom, Debbie Tegarden, says there were dozens of summer camps from which to choose. She liked this one for Ollie, not because he wants a career in the theater, but because it allows him to experiment with his imagination and collaborate with other kids.

After this workshop, he’s off to soccer camp.

“We moved here two weeks ago because we heard Ashland places a priority on children,” says Tegarden, while holding another redheaded son,18-month-old Gus. “It’s amazing they offer a theater camp.”

At Ashland Children’s Theatre, younger children perform with puppets, and older kids put on original film-noir plays. Afterward, they may find that they are better storytellers and feel more confident when they return to their classrooms in the fall.

“They are learning life skills,” says instructor Kate Sullivan, who has a drama and theater degree from the University of Hawaii and has worked as an OSF understudy. “They learn how to express their ideas to other people.”

Some of the children enter the workshop shy, and instructors Smyth and Sullivan encourage them to unleash their inhibitions. One exercise has the kids pretending to be mannequins who come alive when another character on stage isn’t looking.

“Some play it safe and barely move out of fear of being caught,” says Smyth, who has a theater degree from San Francisco State University and is a member of the comedy improv troupe The Hamazons. “But we tell them to be big. This is a place to take a risk, say yes’ and stay positive.”

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.

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