Sonoma County’s Transcendence Theatre Company gives back to kids

Transcendence Theatre Company troupe members are sharing the magic of the stage through song, dance and theatrics in an after-school program.|

The after-school program started with dozens of kids running through a human tunnel, being cheered every step of the way by the actors of the Transcendence Theatre Company.

Held at the Boys & Girls clubs of Sonoma Valley, the program ended more than two hours later with 50 kids dancing and singing “Try Everything,” a song sung by Shakira in the animated Disney movie “Zootopia.”

Nine days later, on a balmy Friday night, most of the kids attended the Broadway Under the Stars “Gala Celebration” at Jack London State Historic Park.

“I like the singing and dancing,” said 8-year-old Raul Stevens of Sonoma. “I could see myself singing with them someday.”

That’s exactly what the actors hope to inspire, said Stephan Stubbins, co-executive director of Transcendence.

“We see all of life as a work of art,” he said. “Our first project in Mexico was with an orphanage. That experience gave us a tangible feeling for the power of the arts to make a profound positive impact.”

This year Transcendence sought “to experiment with doing a more ongoing project with the Boys & Girls club to see if we could have an even more lasting effect on their lives.”

What’s remarkable about the workshop, part of a continuing series at the Boys & Girls club in Sonoma, was that it wasn’t just a couple of actors doing some song-and-dance numbers with a few tips about performing.

Most of the Transcendence cast (15 actors) and crew (14 more people) showed up to work with the kids in an exuberant program that emphasized participation.

The children - some as young as 7 - sang, danced, and complimented friends during the shout-out.

One Transcendence actor, Desiree Davar, shared her story about auditioning for “West Side Story” in New York but getting rejected time and time again.

After years of persistence, she got a role in the play and now has toured around the country and beyond in “West Side Story” and other productions.

Next, two actors had a tap-dancing competition, a “tap-off” as they called it, a lesson in not giving up: One of the actors, Evan Ruggiero, is missing part of one leg and dances with a wooden rod from the knee down.

After seeing Ruggiero dance on his prosthetic leg, 9-year-old Edwin Aguilar said, “You can do anything even if you have a problem in life.”

Jess Coffman, a Transcendence actor who led the workshop, thought carefully about what lessons she hoped to impart to the children.

“At the beginning of the summer, I took a look at what theater has brought to my life and the way I see it affecting people who come into Transcendence,” she said.

“We have to trust each other and be comfortable with making mistakes right off the bat - that’s a very big part of the creation process,” she added.

“Go for it and honor your authenticity. And be happy and comfortable to share that because what the world needs is people to be their authentic selves.”

To break the ice, the program started with a name game where everyone made a dance move that was repeated by the group, eliciting peals of laughter.

Then the Transcendence team told the kids that being authentic means being real. They shared sayings such as: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Elizabeth Hernandez, 7, of Glen Ellen said she enjoyed making “new friends with people from the theater company. Friendship is what I like about this.”

Transcendence has helped keep Jack London State Historic Park open, raising more than $350,000 for park services during its six seasons, as $5 from each ticket is donated.

Alex Brown-Ward, a coordinator at the Boys & Girls club, noted that the company brings 25 to 30 “energetic” actors and crew to the club four or five times a year which is “extremely rare.”

The “energy they bring is really liberating,” he said. The message is: “You can do this. Be the star. Come out of your shell.”

Some kids initially don’t want to participate, he said, but when he and the actors urge the kids to join in, they “usually get caught up in it. It’s fantastic.”

One of the younger girls, Brianna Razo of Sonoma, said, “All the singing and dancing makes me happy. I’ve never been to a show and really want to go.”

Nine days later about 50 kids piled into a school bus and arrived at Jack London State Historic Park about an hour before the evening performance.

The kids enjoyed a brown-bag picnic on the gently sloping grounds as a traditional jazz band played, then found their seats in the outdoor theater that’s bounded by stone walls that enclosed a vineyard in the 19th century.

Before the actors came on stage, the kids danced to the pre-show music. When the lights went down, the club staff shushed the kids, who tried to be quiet but didn’t really succeed.

Near the end of the first act, the cast broke into “Try Everything.” Some kids leapt up and started dancing again, singing along with the actors.

At intermission, 9-year-old Rosie McWhorter of Sonoma said, “All the singers are really good. It’s awesome that the Boys & Girls club is doing this for us and that Transcendence gave us all these seats.”

Early in the show Transcendence artistic director Amy Miller dared the audience to have “the best night ever.”

After the final song, “Life is a Highway,” brought the show to a close and the kids to their feet, it seemed clear the kids had done just that. Transcendence Theatre Company’s next performance is “Broadway Holiday Spectacular,” with five shows Dec. 1-3 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. Details:

Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.

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