Storyland Theatre: Inspiring children through the arts

The Means Report

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – The Storyland Theatre is in the spotlight now. So you think to yourself, “Well, I’ve seen Storyland perform at Augusta University with my child or when I was a child myself, I know about them,” but you’re going to find out a lot more over the course of the next few minutes, thanks to the presence of the executive director of Storyland Theatre. She’s Barbara Feldman coming to us from California today, where she’s with her kinfolk.

Brad Means: Barbara, thank you for leading Storyland since its inception in 1988, and for all you do for our community.

Barbara Feldman: Thank you, Brad, I appreciate that. Thanks for letting us have this opportunity.

Brad Means: Absolutely, so just to the uninitiated viewer, let me ask you, do you all at Storyland just do performances for school children? Is that how we should picture what y’all do?

Barbara Feldman: Yes, our mission is to make theatre available to every child, regardless of their ability to pay. And we have a community performance at the end of the week so that families can come. We do three shows a year and each of those shows has 12 school shows, and we have kids coming from Georgia and South Carolina, from 15 counties. And we average about 22,000 people a year.

Brad Means: Wow, the impact, Barbara, is so profound, and I want to get to that a little bit in our talk, but go back to the performances you were just talking about, how do you decide which three you’re going to do? Do you look for certain storylines or themes that you think will be most appropriate?

Barbara Feldman: I am so glad you asked that. We have always, since we began, only done original, locally written plays and musicals. Rick Davis writes most of them. Susan Burgess does our music, Jim Nord is our musical director. And we only do original works that we select and that we’ve done over all these years. And we repeat our shows at least five years apart because with our age group, pre-K through age 14, most of the kids who will come when they’re really little may come back five years later, but they’re seeing it through different eyes. They’re seeing it as they’re more grown up. But that is something, and we are all adults who perform, we’re all professionals from the community, and we have college students who have worked with us, and anybody in the community who’s an adult who’s interested in performing for kids, we love having them.

Brad Means: Let me ask you this when it comes to, we think about when we see a performance, we buy a ticket and we see a performance. Do these kids have to pay you? Do the schools have to pay you? And, in addition to that, how do you get your money, your revenue, so you can keep going?

Barbara Feldman: Lots of questions, okay first, about 80% of the children who come to our shows and that’s, as I said, about 22,000 a year, about 80%, come on very discounted, some even free tickets. And we even offer transportation credits to the schools that need them. I talk to every teacher who makes the reservation. I find out what they can afford, what they can’t afford, and that’s our mission, to make sure any child can come. And we know that most of the children who come to Storyland all these years are children who would never see a live performance if they didn’t come with school. So that’s number one, that is our goal, and that is all we do. We don’t perform at night for people. We just do this for the kids. Okay, money, we normally, and I’m going back pre COVID two years ago, because since COVID, we have had no ticket revenue at all, and I’ll explain that later and why.

Brad Means: Well you all had to do all virtual didn’t you?

Barbara Feldman: We did all virtual. The moment we had to cancel Beauty and the Beast, which was going on in two weeks with 8,500 people in the performances, we had to cancel it when COVID happened. And we felt so that the children would not get to come to Storyland. So we decided right away, we took one of our archival videos of our live show, Jack and the Beanstalk, our musical. And we put it up, we made a special YouTube channel. I notified the teachers, we made it available to everybody anywhere who would like to watch it on our YouTube channel. And the teachers incorporated the show into their distance learning. And they could have children watching it at home. Because teachers had no idea who was going to show up when they finally went back to school.

Brad Means: Right, you never do.

Barbara Feldman: No.

Brad Means: And let me ask you this, let me fast forward to the, we’re going to encourage the community to help you in any way that it can, but does the rest of your revenue, in addition to those tickets sales you mentioned just come from donations and the supportive people throughout the community, like regular folks?

Barbara Feldman: Most of the money we get is from foundations, the Knox Foundation, Creel Harrison, Publix. There are certain foundations that help us and we count on, but we just found out we lost a major funder last week.

Brad Means: Hopefully somebody watching will be compelled to replace that major funder and then some, let me ask you this, cause this is so important. What does it do for a child to be exposed to the kind of cultural offerings that Storyland puts on stage? What kind of spark might ignite? And I’m sure you’ve probably seen proof of it.

Barbara Feldman: Yes, I’ve seen lots of proof of it. The arts, having children exposed to the arts, especially live performances makes an incredible difference in the way they view the world and the way they approach school. So most of the kids who come are socioeconomically disadvantaged, they’ve never seen live theatre, a live play. They walk in and say what movie are you showing? We start with the theatre etiquette speech. We explain to them what they’re going to see, how they should behave, we talk about when it gets dark and all the things that happen in the theatre so that they will enjoy the performance. And I have so many people now who started out as children. One example is Eric Mills who came and played Gollum for us. And I had never met him, and I said, Eric, do you know anything about Storyland? And he said, when I was in kindergarten, we came to see Rapunzel, And I remember wanting to climb that huge tower you built, and so I decided to become an actor so I could climb the tower. You’re going to have some pictures later of another scene in Rapunzel, and this was something that just overwhelmed me. I went to the supermarket to buy the donuts for Rapunzel, because the witch has a chocolate donut, and a big sign that says do not eat the donut, this means you. And I walked in and talked to the young lady working in Publix, and I said, we’re doing this show, and I need to order these donuts for Rapunzel. And she went, do not eat the donut, this means you.

Brad Means: No way.

Barbara Feldman: And I just almost started to cry. And she said, I don’t know why I remember that. She was in her twenties. So I have lots of people. We have Lacy Carmichael on our board, started out coming in kindergarten, and then she eventually became an actor with us, now she’s on our board. Michael Fortino was our intern and came for years, and he’s now doing some real network ads, and he’s in TV shows.

Brad Means: All right, listen, tell me this, tell me this, and I know the success stories are endless and each one of them is so inspirational and it proves the value of Storyland to say the least. What’s upcoming, what’s the next show that students can look forward to and how can we help you all keep going strong? And we have about 60 more seconds.

Barbara Feldman: Oh, okay. The next thing we have done, we did an animated musical video that we did last year, Humphry Clinker Gets His Wish. And right now we’re working on the Emperor’s New Clothes. These are for in class field trips because a lot of kids can’t go on field trips yet. All the information is on Facebook and on our webpage. But these are specific things we have created that we had never done before. And we are hoping to do Beauty and the Beast live in March, assuming everything is safe and that kids can go on field trips, but that’s our first live show coming up and that’ll be March 2022.

Brad Means: That is perfect. And we are going to put some information on the screen, Barbara Feldman, so that people can know where to send their checks and how to find out other ways to support you.

Barbara Feldman: That’d be so great.

Brad Means: Yes ma’am, listen, I cannot thank you enough for getting up early out west for being with us. I wish you a fun trip out there and a safe trip home back to Storyland. Thank you for what you and everybody, what you all do for our community, Barbara.

Barbara Feldman: Thank you, Brad, I appreciate it so much. We appreciate the community’s support.

Brad Means: Well, we love Storyland Theatre.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.