Upstart Crow provides theatre experiences for kids of all skill sets

Members of the Missoula Children’s Theatre perform at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. (Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett/Wikimedia Commons)

Eularee Smith believes in the value of the everyday child. With a background in music education and special education, she noticed the shrinking of arts programs in public schools and decided to act on it. She has worked in both public and private education for 45 years and is now the executive director of the children’s performing arts program Upstart Crow Studios, an inclusive company which emphasizes that there’s a role for every kid in every show.

Smith, who used to work with the University of Oregon’s Talented and Gifted Program, and co-founder Sarah Beth Byrum sat down in a Denny’s years ago to hash out a plan for what would become Upstart Crow. The two women brought together their experiences in dance, theatre and music. After its founding in 2000, the program moved between buildings, but its first show, “The Beauty and the Beast,” took place in 2002 at Willard Elementary.

“We planned it all out on a napkin,” Smith said in an interview with the Emerald. “How we would do a program that’s inclusive of all children regardless of their challenges or talent … it was to just give them the experience of the performing arts.”

The theatre school, which officially moved into its building on 1st Avenue in Eugene in 2006, now produces a variety of shows a year. In the winter, Upstart Crow staged a version of “Beauty and the Beast” at the Hult Center. This year’s ‘summer stock’ show is “Grease.” The theater also runs classes in a variety of areas in the theatre arts.

Upstart Crow’s program model used to be unique, but according to Smith, more and more programs are adopting this type of method.

“A traditional theatre program uses the audition process to eliminate the ones that they can’t use within the casting of the program. We changed that to be an alternative where the audition process was used to place children in a role that was successful for them,” Smith said. That may mean the cast has 30 or 40 children auditioning for Cinderella, but she makes sure every kid gets a role.

This does provide a challenge when casting though. Sometimes there are 80 kids on stage when a show has a cast of 20, but Upstart Crow finds different ways to include everyone. It’s not about talent at this theatre school: it’s about passion and commitment.

“We have come up with innovative models and techniques to do that, which I don’t think other theatre companies do,” Smith said. “Inclusive and diverse have become these buzz words. We kind of laugh because we have been doing it for almost 20 years. All of the sudden it’s this happening thing.”

Upstart Crow’s next show is “Grease.” Tickets go on sale June 1 for a weekend of performances from July 28 to July 30.

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