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In its 25th year, Artbarn continues to cultivate childrens’ creativity through theater

Choreographer Camille Cappello, center, and music director Taylor Kirkwood, right, work with students. Photo by Niámh Mullen
April 2, 2024  Updated May 3, 2024 at 3:45 p.m.

A trail of rosy-cheeked elementary school students files into Temple Sinai, but not because they are attending the synagogue. Instead, their little toes tap, jump and snap to attention as choreographer Camille Capello begins their next dance lesson. The children belong to Artbarn, which isn’t actually a barn. It’s a community theater program for students in kindergarten through high school. Artbarn’s next show will be a production of “A Play About Time,” to be performed at United Parish April 6-7.

Founded 25 years ago by local drama teachers Cathy Jacobs and Jackie Borck, Artbarn is both a fixture of Brookline and an enigma to anyone who hasn’t attended one of its performances. That’s because it’s more like a traveling circus than a community theater.

The nonprofit theater has no home base. Instead, organizers rent several religious spaces around town: Church of Our Savior, United Parish and Temple Sinai. Executive Director Matthew Kossack stresses that Artbarn has no specific religious affiliation. “Religious organizations have space, and their missions are aligned, they’re about community, they’re about young people,” Kossack says.

Downstairs in the synagogue, away from the dance studio-esque rehearsal space, is a room full of third and fourth-graders. Crayola washable markers are strewn across plastic folding tables, with the mini thespians sticking out their tongues in concentration as they use safety scissors to cut printer paper. They are making headshot frames that will appear as props for the show. Designer Florrie Ives threads among them, examining their work. “They have such big imaginations,” Ives says. “It is fun to see what ideas they have.”

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Ives explains that the “prop-building” time provides the students with a respite from having to rehearse lines or learn dance steps. At the same time, it allows them to be involved in every part of the creative process.

A third space

As screens increasingly dominate the lives of children, Artbarn acts as a welcome throwback. iPhones and iPads are nowhere to be found, as the program encourages students to stay engaged during rehearsals. “There are precious few non-digital things left out there,” Kossack says. “I love the advances that different art forms have taken, but even for theater we’ve stayed pretty non-digital … we’re a little old school.”

The theater’s charm lies in its stripped-back production style, and Kossack describes Artbarn as an essential “third space,” something that exists outside the comfort of home and the confines of school.

The theater’s name is not incidental, but rather, a deliberate analogy. Artbarn is a nod to the collaborative workings of a farm, and each troupe takes its name from something you might find in agrarian spaces: sprouts, mice, ducks, barn cats and horses. For a farm to thrive, the farmer must first find the right conditions that best suit each type of crop or animal. Having the correct foundation allows all these elements to work together towards a shared goal.

Similarly, Artbarn tries to cultivate an environment in which kids can explore their creativity, develop their voices, and gain confidence as young artists and individuals. The emphasis is on process rather than product. When a kid forgets a line or misses a cue, it can be an opportunity to build confidence rather than trigger shame. “That’s the beauty of live theater,” Kossack says. “It’s a highwire act with no net.”

Artbarn has an internship program that enables high school seniors to work alongside staff and take on more responsibility. The seniors manage the light boards, coach younger students with their lines, and teach dance steps, all while earning community-service credit at the high school.

Penny O’Neil has been attending Artbarn since she was in the third grade. “It was such a big part of my childhood,” she says, adding, “I had a great time exploring theater and learning.” Joining Artbarn’s internship program allowed her to gain more hands-on experience working with kids, she says, and she hopes one day to become an elementary school teacher.

Penny attributes some of her essential life skills to her time as an Artbarn performer. She recalls a particularly nerve-wracking instance in sixth grade when she was cast as the young Nala in a production of “The Lion King.” Naturally reserved as a kid, she struggled to speak up.

She fondly remembers Kossack’s words of advice at the time. He instructed her to project her voice toward an antique clock on the other side of the studio. That tactic helped her develop her stage presence. “I learned public speaking,” she says. “I learned how to be on stage in front of an audience, projection, and how to be confident.”

‘Like riding a wild horse’

Upstairs in the theater’s main rehearsal studio, musical director Taylor Kirkwood weaves notes together behind a corner piano. Kirkwood has been working with Artbarn for over a decade, playing the piano live alongside the troupes during rehearsals and performances — a vital role since the majority of Artbarn’s productions are musicals. Kirkwood plays around the kids when they are performing. This way he can pause for laughs, or play an interlude if something goes awry. As he puts it, “It’s kind of like riding a wild horse.”

Kirkwood recalls one live performance when a student skipped a part of the song, cutting out a few minutes of song time. Actors behind the curtain awaited an entrance that never came. But Kirkwood’s ad-libbing at the ivories allowed the moment to fly by with the audience none the wiser. Kirkwood prides himself in the fact that he has never stopped a number mid-performance. “The last thing I would ever want to do is stop a song and start over,” he says, “because that completely takes everybody out of the story.”

Improvisations to cover a hiccup are relatively rare. “We prepare the kids so well that this almost never happens.” Kirkwood says. Even when mistakes happen, there is still learning going on. It’s the skill of being able to seamlessly carry on past mistakes that matter, not the ability to perform perfectly outright.

After a quarter-century of Artbarn functioning as a traveling circus, its organizers would love to find a more permanent home. Every year they push the boundaries of their rental spaces as more and more children seek to join. After looking around, they concluded that Brookline’s pricy real estate would mean they’d have to move Artbarn out of town to find a permanent location. And they don’t want to do that, Kossack stresses.

Artbarn has a tuition assistance program so that any child who wants to partake in Artbarn can, regardless of family finances, he says. Although only 5% of students receive some form of financial assistance, Kossack notes that Artbarn is actively working to increase awareness of its aid programs.

It requires lots of effort to sustain the program. In some ways, Artbarn staff are like the ducks one of their troupes is named after: calm above the surface but paddling furiously below.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Reinventing Journalism course at Brandeis University, taught by Professor Neil Swidey, with mentoring for student journalists by Brookline.News steering committee co-chair Ellen Clegg and editor Sam Mintz. Read more about the collaboration here.