Like the theatre program itself, SDHS’ children’s theatre began small and grew huge. From a beginning that featured one performance for one small school, it grew to eighteen performances for more than thirty schools with an audience approaching, and sometimes reaching, 10,000 children and adults.
Why and how did it begin? Having noticed that many high school students were self-conscious about performing on stage, it occurred to Mrs. Freeman Lehman that one way to help them overcome their fears and discomfort was to begin the year with a performance for little kids. The more she thought about starting with a children’s theatre, the clearer it became that there were manifold benefits to be gained. It would be much less intimidating for teenagers to perform for young children than for their peers. Children’s theatre offered strong opportunities for working with the spectacle elements of theatre: colorful sets, fanciful costumes, elaborate make-up, special effects, complicated lighting. As plays for children are generally shorter in running time, the length of the script and the number of lines that would need to be learned would be less intimidating for beginning students.
Most importantly to Mrs. Freeman Lehman, as these productions would run only thirty to forty-five minutes, rehearsing them would allow ample opportunity to teach the skills necessary to become a competent performer: how to concentrate, how to listen, how to articulate, how to project, how to breathe, how to move, how to make eye contact, how to imagine, how to interpret a script and a character, how to learn lines.
Mrs. Freeman Lehman contacted Buckingham Elementary School in Berlin and asked if the school would be interested in having her theatre students bring a free show to their school. They agreed that they would indeed. So it began, with SDHS’ first children’s theatre performed just once for the entire student body of Buckingham Elementary on Buckingham Road in the coolest small town of Berlin.
The experience was so positive and the production so well received that we soon received a request to visit Ocean City Elementary and present a children’s production for their students. Working with a lovely teacher with the wonderful name of Mrs. Fish, SDHS theatre students collaborated with Mrs. Fish’ class and created a joint performance piece.
Word was getting around that SDHS’ program was very interested in engaging with local elementary schools. Two supporters of Mrs. Freeman Lehman, who worked in administrative positions at the central office, decided to approach Mrs. Lehman about expanding the children’s theatre performances. They wanted SDHS’ children’s theatre productions to be available to all elementary aged students in Worcester County. They had approached the various principals who had agreed they would be willing to secure bus transportation for their students to go to the high school to see a production in the high school’s auditorium. Mrs. Lana Williams and Mrs. Betty Lynch became two of SDHS theatre’s strongest advocates. Eventually, Mrs. Lynch, who served as the reading coordinator for Worcester County and had many contacts with other reading specialists in nearby counties, asked Mrs. Lehman’s permission to contact the elementary supervisors in nearby counties to offer their students an opportunity to also attend these productions at SDHS.
From humble beginnings, as the saying goes . . . The first children’s theatre was forty years ago. One school, one performance. Today, the Annual Stephen Decatur High School Children’s Theatre is performed eighteen times, over a period of a week and a half, for over thirty schools and 10,000 children and adults. Students come by bus from all over Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties. Buses have brought students from as far away as Accomack County, Virginia. A special performance is reserved for Head Start Centers from the tri-county area.
Through the years many of the world’s beloved fairy tales were adapted for the stage by Mrs. Freeman Lehman:
- Sleeping Beauty
- The Golden Goose
- The Three Little Pigs
- The Pied Piper of Hamelin
- Goldilocks and Three Very Harry Bears
- The Tortoise and the Hare
- The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf
- Little Red-Riding Hood
- Lazy Jack
- Jack and the Beanstalk
- Hansel and Grethel
- Clever Elsie
- Tattercoats (Cinderella)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
- The Fisherman and His Wife
- The Little Pear Girl
- Phylicia and The Pot of Pinks
A collaboration with Ocean City Elementary School music teacher, Mr. Rick Chapman, led to the introduction of original musical numbers to the children’s theatre productions. A big hit with both cast and audience, the music greatly enhanced and enriched these performances. The tunes were memorable, the lyrics delightful, and the movements evocative of character and plot, as well as often being very funny.
What started out as a way to introduce teenaged theatre students comfortably to the stage turned into an annual event eagerly anticipated by elementary and middle schools near and far. These productions have been largely responsible for giving Stephen Decctur High School a reputation for excellence in theatre.