The Chester Springs theater of dreams
● By J. Chambless
A recent production of 'The Wizard of Oz' included several cast members who had attended summer camps.
Richard L. Gaw
the time she was 5 years old, Lauren McComas had already committed
herself to achieve her wildest dream. She wanted to be the director
of her very own theater company.
Raised in New Jersey, McComas began performing in local theater productions. Interspersed between rehearsals and performances, she spent several Saturdays in New York City with her family, watching Broadway musicals. When she was 5, her parents took her to see “The Secret Garden.” As she watched little Mary on the stage, something stirred inside of Lauren. She turned to her parents at the end and exclaimed, “I want to do this. I want to be her.”
In 2013, she founded SALT Performing Arts, where she is now artistic director and president, and oversees a year-long agenda of student education; full productions of musicals, plays, mystery dinner theater shows; and workshops on improvisation and auditioning. Over the past four years, the company, housed in a 100-seat theater inside the West Pikeland Township Building in Yellow Springs, has burst onto the local performing arts scene. As McComas grew older, her acting career continued to rise. She received her B.A. in theater after studying at Messiah College, Temple University, and the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, Ireland. She went on to perform in more than 100 productions in theaters up and down the East Coast, as well as in Indiana and California.
When she was first pitching the idea of opening a performing arts community in Yellow Springs, McComas told township officials that she envisioned a level of excellence that would get positive responses from theater-goers, who would leave the theater with a feeling that they had just seen a great show, conveniently tucked into a historic village.
"I told them that I wanted our audiences to say to each other, 'This was just as good as seeing a show in Philadelphia, and we didn't have to pay for parking or drive through the city, or spend $60 or more for a ticket,'” McComas said.
Over its past four seasons, SALT has proven its excellence, and the new 2017 season, now in full swing, is no exception. In January, the year kicked off with a SALT Cabaret; February saw a sold-out run of “Seussical, Jr.”; “Beauty and the Beast” be performed in March and April; “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will hit the stage in May; catered dinner theater productions of “Lend Me a Tenor” will be staged in June and “A Doll’s House” in September; “Camp Rock” is to be performed in August, followed by “Sister Act” and a Christmas show to round out the year in December.
While a portion of SALT's season gives non-Equity adult actors the opportunity to perform in plays and musicals, the company has also provided both summer and year-round theater opportunities for more than 1,000 young people since it began. Its six-week Stagelight Summer Camps, for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, give young people training in singing, acting and dancing, in classes taught by professional performers. A mini-musical or a showcase is performed for the public at the end of camp.
This year, the Stagelight U four-week program, for students from the third grade to the twelfth grade, will immerse performers in a month-long production of the main stage musical “Camp Rock, Jr.,” which will include rehearsal and performance, as well as training in acting, singing and dancing.
StagelightPLUS is a year-round training program that offers an intensive, ten-week session, where students from kindergarten through eighth grade receive 30-minute singing, acting and dancing lessons once a week. At the end of the session, the students get to perform in a showcase, and are often cast in a main stage production.
The Stagelight program will also offer new, one-week long afternoon programs for comedic improvisation and audition preparation, as well as a stage/tech crew camp that will teach set design and construction, lighting design and audio technology for the production of “Camp Rock, Jr.”
The instructors for all of the Stagelight programs have a vast array of experiences in the performing arts, a passion for teaching children, high levels of integrity, and a commitment to excellence. Many of the instructors are former professional performers -- some even from Broadway -- while others have teaching degrees and years of experience in the classroom. The goal of each instructor is to help children explore and become equipped in their talents while uplifting their confidences and encouraging their spirits.
The “SALT Bill” theater programs that accompany each production are frequently dotted with an impressive resume of acting experiences, but they almost always include a brief mention of the other side of the actor's life – a profession, a family, a larger obligation. In contrast, a quick look through the “Seussical, Jr.” program included the biographies of its 31-member cast, who ranged from third graders to high-school seniors. There were professional photos of each performer, and their biographies were so chock full of previous productions that it took three pages to list all of them.
McComas knows that for a select few youngsters who are either a part of the main stage productions or attend Stagelight camps and workshops, their dreams are big, but the world that they aspire to is even larger.
“When there are certain young people who have dreams to become actors, I tell my own story, and point out that nothing great comes easily, but it's worth giving it a go,” she said. “Our teachers are very realistic in the knowledge that for most of the children they teach, they will not grow up to become Broadway stars, and that's OK. That doesn't mean that their dream has to die. That doesn't mean that they can't be involved in theater for the rest of their lives.
“Our Stagelight program is not about teaching young people to be stars," she added. "It's about opening up doors that tell them that the art of theater can become, and remain, an outlet for their passion.”
The hundreds of children, teenagers and adults who perform at SALT every year, or perform the backstage tasks to mount a production, have become the living personification of what McComas first dreamed about when she was 5 years old. In a society that has become more protective and insular, McComas looks at SALT Performing Arts as a living, breathing antithesis to insularity.
"When I first dreamed about starting this performing arts community, I did so in order to create for myself something that would be bigger than me, and now everyone who is part of this is a part of something that is bigger than them," she said. "I say to my casts that this experience is about the bigger picture, and they get to be a part of it.
"We're all under the same roof for a night, for a few hours, to experience this awesome thing that is alive, and tomorrow when it's over, it will die, but the magical part is that we all got to partake in it together, for this short time."
For McComas, the mission of the company is in its acronym.
"'SALT' stands for Salt and Light Theater, because salt preserves and enhances things you put it on, and we want to preserve the culture that's in this village," McComas said. "The light side of the name is in the belief that theater should be a source of light and love."
To learn more about SALT Performing Arts and its current season, visit www.saltpa.com. To learn more about The Stagelight Program and its summer camps, visit www.stagelightpa.com. The theater is at 1645 Art School Road in Chester Springs. Call 610-703-1734.
contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com.