Leslie Putnam and a team of teacher-artists working at Playground Stage are using theater education to help teach children, strengthen families and build community in Buncombe County.
After graduating from Western Carolina University’s musical theatre program in 2011, Putnam left the state to work in theater, both on stage and off. She also taught at a children’s theater in an affluent Washington suburb.
Putnam realized she wanted to provide those same theater education opportunities to children in Buncombe County, where she grew up, so she moved back home and started Playground Stage in 2019.
The nonprofit aims to help children learn and develop 21st century life skills through hands-on theater education. It offers in-school programming, after-school clubs, summer camps, and now, summer family musicals. It’s preparing to present its first such musical, “Annie,” on Friday and Saturday at T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville.
The non-competitive theater participation helps children with everything from communication and collaboration to creativity and critical thinking, Putnam said. Children perform on stage and gain valuable skills helping with other activities, everything from designing and making sets, props and costumes to helping with ticketing, advertising and other aspects of production and promotion.
“Everything a child is learning in school you can take and implement in theater, practicing it in a fun way and giving them a creative outlet,” Putnam said.
When the pandemic struck, Playground Stage offered outdoor summer theater camps for groups of 10-12 children at Avery’s Creek Community Center in Arden. There, handmade sets and backdrops took over picnic shelters and family members came to watch plays from the lawn.
“We started with the name Playground Stage because we saw the stage as a children’s playground and someplace fun. But then we literally had to turn into an organization that was doing performances at a playground,” Putnam said. “It was good for the children. It was healing for them to have some outlet. Sometimes that was the only social activity they had.”
Many children and parents from those summer camps and after-school clubs are in this first summer family musical. The troupe performing “Annie” includes a cast of 40 who range in age from 4 to 76.
Participants are brothers and sisters, cousins, parents, grandparents — even some next-door neighbors. The show features matchups such as a son and father playing Sandy the Dog and the dog catcher, and a daughter and father playing Annie and benefactor Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
“Our little group has gotten very close,” Putnam said of the performers. “The summer family musical is the first time all these families who have been passing each other in the parking lot have really been able to get together and get to know each other and build community, which is what we’ve been missing for two years.”
Greyson Huneycutt, a senior in the musical theatre program at WCU, said she’s glad to be part of that community. Huneycutt, from Rocky Mount, has interned with Playground Stage for two summers. She will play Grace Ferrell, secretary to Warbucks, in “Annie.”
“It’s a place to teach theater, but it’s more of a place for children to grow into their personalities, learn to work as a team and have creative expression,” Huneycutt said about Playground Stage. “It’s amazing to see these kids grow and come into their own. I think it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of and give back to a community.”
So is Bethany Rowe, another alumna of WCU’s musical theatre program, who serves as Playground Stage’s board president. Rowe works as development and marketing director for an improv theater in Atlanta, Georgia, where she also leads a program that teaches improv to neurodiverse teens and children.
“I got involved as a board member because Leslie and I both share a passion for educational theater and its impact within our own communities. We both believe that theater is an invaluable tool that can teach others about connection, collaboration and communication. It working with children, it is less about creating skilled performers and more about supporting their growth in social and emotional learning as well as their ability to form lasting connections,” Rowe said. “Playground Stage fills a need within the Buncombe community by providing this support for youth in such a wonderfully creative and interactive way.”
By involving children in performing arts and stagecraft, Playground Stage is also helping instill an appreciation of theater among younger generations. This spring, one club traveled to WCU to catch a student performance of “The Addams Family” and take a backstage tour.
A few years ago, whenever Putnam asked a classroom of kindergarteners or first graders to raise their hands if they know what a play is, a couple hands at least would almost always pop right up. Hands aren’t so frequent or guaranteed after the pandemic.
“We haven’t been going to the theater for two years. There are more kids who just don’t know what it is,” Putnam said.
Playground Stage and the upcoming performances of “Annie” are one way for people to help change that. The shows are free and open to the public. For tickets, people are asked to “donate what they wish” to help support Playground Stage, if possible.
“This is a great chance to bring your child to experience a show for the first time in a family-friendly environment,” Putnam said of “Annie.” “We’re here for families and children to have fun and learn. Come out and give us a try.”
When: 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 5, and Saturday, Aug. 6
Where: T.C. Roberson High School, 250 Overlook Road, Asheville
Learn more: www.playgroundstage.org