For Schmata Productions, a youth theater program based out of Beth Chaim Reform Congregation in Malvern, bringing The Wizard of Oz to the stage is about more than celebrating the classic film’s 75th anniversary. It is also the ideal vehicle to convey the program’s focus on inclusion — the play is an appropriately secular choice to appeal to the diverse group of school-age children who make up the cast.
This is the eighth production staged by Schmata since its founders, including current co-directors Marcy McGee and Gina Curry, agreed to shepherd what they planned to be a one-off production of Fiddler on the Roof in 2007. In a recent interview, Curry recalled that their first show was created in honor of securing the congregation’s permanent home that year.
“Beth Chaim used to meet in different places, and when they were finally able to build their own building, a member said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate by doing something like Fiddler?’ ” The company’s name came from that show as well. Curry said that when they found out they had no budget for costumes, they simply shrugged and said, “We’re going to make schmatas out of schmatas!”
To make it happen, McGee joined forces with two other Beth Chaim members, and brought in her co-worker Curry. Although she is not Jewish, Curry has been involved in theater her entire life. When not teaching children on the autism spectrum alongside McGee at the Vanguard School in Paoli, she has run a preschool drama program at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.
In addition to its musicals, Schmata runs various summer experiences. Beth Chaim provides space for a nominal fee during the summer, and donates the space during the school year.
Originally conceived as a way to bring Beth Chaim’s families together in activity, Schmata now draws participants from across the area. “They come from other school districts, home-schooling, charter schools — I don’t even know how many religions and ethnicities we have right now!” Curry exclaimed about the show’s 21-strong cast.
McGee said their work at Vanguard has led to the program’s uniquely inclusive atmosphere: If any child between third and 12th grade wants to act, they will be given a role.
“We have never turned anybody away — we have never needed to make cuts,” McGee emphasized.
In addition to the theater-loving usual suspects, she explained that their after-school programs also attract kids “who have poor experiences developing friendships, kids on the spectrum” who join the after-school program. “And when we put the show together at the theater, to see the level of achievement and confidence it gives them — to watch how it changes them is incredible.”
Laurie Schwartz can testify to the transformative power of theater. She and her daughter, Melanie, have been involved with Schmata since Melanie was in third grade. Now 14 and in eighth grade at Tredyffrin/ Easttown Middle School, Melanie will take the stage as Glinda the Good Witch. Schwartz echoes the appeal of the program as being about more than hearing the roar of the crowd.
“Melanie wanted to join not just because she has the performance bug,” she said. “She has developed good relationships with these kids.”
Schwartz, like every other parent with a child in the program, has plenty of chances to see what goes into producing the play. Every family is expected to perform at least 10 hours of volunteer work, which encompasses everything from building sets to designing costumes to providing pizza — one of Schwartz’s current assignments.
“What makes Schmata so special,” she added, “is that they are very inclusive, not just for kids on the spectrum” — Melanie has Asperger’s — “but ADD and ADHD as well. This is a place where they can all feel accepted.”