ARIEL Theatrical’s latest offering reaffirms an inspired mission for Salinas youth.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Before setting up jail bar props or warming up singing voices, Gail Higginbotham, artistic director of ARIEL Theatrical Inc., shares a Wall Street Journal article with her young actors. It’s not about theater, but rather the entitled attitude of the millennial generation.
Higginbotham, a petite and nimble spirit in a black dress and tights, sits on the edge of the Oldtown Salinas stage as light drifts through the sunburst window 14 rows back. She asks the attentive cast what’s wrong with kids who go into a job interview and immediately ask how many vacation days they will get.
“They just think they deserve everything,” Alyssa Ferrell responds quickly. After some more articulate reactions, Higginbotham asks how this example could apply to the musical they are producing, Miss Nelson is Missing. Alyssa is once again the first to raise her hand: “Some young people who come in here think they deserve this part.”
Each rehearsal at ARIEL begins with a life lesson like this. Incorporated 20 years ago, ARIEL has been steadily enriching children’s lives through theater, nurturing core values like responsibility, integrity, respect and service.
“ARIEL is about giving kids the skills and perspective they need to create positive and productive lives,” Higginbotham says. “The theater is simply our venue for that.”
Higginbotham says the theater company goes beyond giving kids confidence to think on their feet and problem solve by instilling a positive approach. “ARIEL provides a clear, consistent voice that you can rise to your potential, you can develop the wherewithal to seize opportunities, to generate opportunities, but life isn’t going to hand you fame and fortune just because somebody told you your whole life you can have it your way.”
This unique approach to empowering children helped land Higginbotham the Luminary Champion of the Arts award from the Arts Council for Monterey County this year. But its beginnings came by accident.
After she gave up New York acting career to raise her family in the Salinas area, Higginbotham started directing musicals at her church. In 1986, a 50-kid rendition of Peter Pan caught the eye of an Alisal Union School District employee, who wanted her to put on the show at Sherwood Hall. “I thought she was trying to be nice,” Higginbotham says, but to her shock the woman booked the 1,500-seat venue.
The church-pew-turned-concert-hall production went on with one hilarious hitch on opening night. Due to a mix-up with the hoisting pipe, Higginbotham, who played Peter Pan, had to have a Navy Seal friend pull her up hand over hand for the flight scene. While she flew into the audience, she also swung back into the set. “By the second set crash they realized they had to drop me to stop the pendulum,” she says.
Crash landings and all, ARIEL has returned to Sherwood Hall every year since for a spring musical, now reaching 11,000 school children throughout Monterey and San Benito counties. The theater group went from rehearsing in random schools and a frozen barn to moving into its white, 220-seat Wilson Children’s Theatre on Main Street in 2001.
ARIEL does 11 shows a year with kids as young as 4 through high school in multi-leveled conservatories and a summer theatre camp. Though most of her students don’t pursue a career in acting, Higginbotham says the lessons are life changing: “For troubled young people, ARIEL is the first exposure they have to realizing they can govern their lives by correct principles as opposed to just responding to the stimuli around them, generally in negative ways.”
Lara Devlin started acting at ARIEL when she was 8. “I was sort of a wild child when I was little, and I thought I knew everything and was very sassy and bossy and wanted to be a star,” Devlin says. “After I was a performer I ended up working for Gail as a teen, being a group leader. That really changed my outlook on what service is.”
After studying acting in New York and earning a masters in dance movement psychotherapy, Devlin returned to ARIEL and is now Higginbotham’s assistant. She also plays Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp in Miss Nelson is Missing.
The musical opens up with a group of children exploring the Museum of Crime and Punishment and at first thinking the gangster life of criminals like Al Capone would be cool; the moral sinks in when they are put behind bars, locking in another poignant message in step with ARIEL’s mission.