Children living in shelters find a caring, nurturing place at Magical Theatre Company

Posted by Laura Briedis Tomko, Oct 04, 2019

You never know when that “aha” moment might strike.

For Magical Theatre Company in Barberton, Ohio, it happened 22 years ago when co-producing director Holly Barkdoll walked across the street prior to a performance to get change for the box office. Always inside the theater readying for performances, she never really saw the people coming to their shows, so she was surprised to find a line of people wrapped around the building. How wonderful, she thought, that the show was going to sell out.

But then she realized that the line actually was going to the building next door—a local soup kitchen. At that moment, it struck her: while some families were waiting in line to see a play and be entertained, others were just trying to survive and find a meal.

That moment inspired her and her husband, co-producing director Dennis O’Connell, to use their theater as an outreach to help disadvantaged children in Northeast Ohio.

Partnering with Akron Public Schools and Project RISE, Magical Theatre Company began working to inspire kids and families who lacked a permanent residence. Today, this collaborative program between the schools, local shelters, and the community provides supplemental educational services to youth who are experiencing homelessness.

Children meet the actors after the production and ask them questions about acting.

According to O’Connell, theater not only provides respite from their everyday troubles but also helps educate the children. Over the past years, the program has grown and is now three-pronged:

  • The theater hosts 50 children at its facility four times a year. Volunteer teachers use Magical Theatre Company study guides to prepare the children for the play, and after the performance they meet the actors and enjoy a backstage tour. They also receive a copy of the book the play is based on, provided by Project RISE. (Last season’s performances were Charlotte’s Web, Flora & Ulysses, Prancer, Harriet Tubman: An American Moses, and Rumpelstiltskin.)
  • The actors bring the show on the road and provide performances at local churches. The First United Methodist Church provides meals to families to create a dinner theater experience.
  • The staff conducts summer workshops at various shelters and performs improvisational shows.

As part of its effort to promote literacy, Project RISE gives children a book based on the play to take home.

Founded on the belief that all people deserve the opportunity to explore the world through theater, Magical Theatre Company is making an impact on children’s lives by opening up their world and allowing them to see things they otherwise would not see.

“It shows children what the world can be and what they can be,” O’Connell says. “When we engage their imagination, we engage their hearts.”

For many children, Magical Theatre Company is their first theater experience. And the staff at the not-for-profit organization takes this responsibility seriously, because they want children to have a positive experience so that they will make arts a part of their lives. Plus, they use the magic of live theater to encourage children to read, develop critical and creative thinking, and to be curious about the world around them.

In addition to Project RISE, Magical Theatre Company puts on 80 performances annually in its 100-year-old theater, as well as takes its show on the road for young audiences and families.

And its impact is widespread, as the theater company reaches 50,000 children and their families each year, covering one-fourth of the state of Ohio.