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Helping children to grow and learn in a challenging yet nurturing performing arts environment is a focus of the Mt. Vernon Community Children's Theatre (MVCCT). With more than 30 years experience both entertaining and enriching lives of children and their families, the MVCCT continues to provide drama education that contributes to the emotional and educational development of young people.

The spark that led to the establishment of the MVCCT came in 1980 when Pat Gleeson and Barbara Erb "noticed a lack of theatrical opportunities for the children in the area," said Laura Marshall, current MVCCT board president.

"When first started, we were production-based only,” Marshall said. “Over time we have added summer and spring break camps, workshops and after-school programs in the local schools" to become even more responsive to unmet creative expression needs.

The expanded opportunities were based on the conviction that quality arts training can lead to higher academic performance, higher self confidence and improved social skills. According to Corey Latta, a veteran performer and now a member of the production staff with the organization, theatrical training is "invaluable in teaching problem solving, teamwork, creativity, personal judgment, and the value of seeing the world from different perspectives."

In describing what sets the theater company apart from others Marshall said, "We produce full-length productions for children with child actors outside of the school setting in a community atmosphere. The children are led by a team of professionals who have a degree in theater or related discipline and experience working with children in theater."

As for how the theater company has kept serving the community, Marshall said "we kept vibrant due to the every-changing population we serve. Children start as audience members with us when they are still in preschool. Then they start coming to audition for our shows. They bring with them excited parents ready to volunteer and be a part of this activity that means so much to their child.”

There are usually three productions a year. There are fall and spring musicals with casts of about 40 children giving many opportunities to perform. The musicals are "appropriate and approachable both for the actors in the show as well as our audiences which are largely families; many with younger children." The current musical production is "The Sound of Music" which runs Nov. 18 to Nov. 19 with performances at Carl Sandburg Middle School.

Teen productions are often non-musical plays with casts of about 20. The shows are classic stories such as the "The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Featuring Sherlock Holmes" scheduled for Feb. 11-20.

"The subject matter may be slightly more mature for this show given that the actors are between the ages of 12-18," Marshall said. "These productions give teens an opportunity to take greater ownership over the play. They learn to do their own makeup, move the set pieces and work more collaboratively with the director and cast.

"Summer and spring break camps give the young actors the opportunity to develop skills that we believe enhance their lives as well as their development as actors. So much of the feedback we receive demonstrates that the camps’ structure fosters self confidence, ability to better articulate and express thoughts and emotions, and self esteem."

For the recent summer camp, about 350 slots were filled. The after-school programs currently serve about 100 students.

The MVCCT is a non-profit that receives funding from the Arts Council of Fairfax County, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and other funders. Although there are costs involved to participate, there are scholarships available.

During the past years, the Mt. Vernon Community Children's Theatre also has conducted specialized after-school programs at no cost to the participants in a number of elementary schools in the local area. These programs focused on fifth-graders who may not have access to performing arts.

The programs were designed to foster the students’ self expression by guiding them to create short plays on themes that are meaningful to them, Marshall said. Themes in the past included bullying, gangs, love, family, being left out of groups, and racial and economic differences.

“The Arts Council of Fairfax County is committed to arts education,” said Linda Sullivan, president and CEO of the arts council. ”We are proud to support the Mount Vernon Community Children's Theatre in their mission to bring theatrical experiences to the youth of the Mount Vernon community. There are very few arts organizations in this section of the county and MVCCT provides a unique experience for students that may otherwise have little or no opportunity to participate in dramatic arts.”

For Latta, all the hard work and team work were fulfilling.

"MVCCT gave me my original start. I started working backstage for them when I was young, and that is ultimately what lead me to majoring in theater and wanting to work in children's theater today,” Latta said. “I gained a lot of confidence while working with them, and found something that I enjoyed and was good at."

Looking to the future, Marshall indicated "we strive to fill a niche and hope to continue to serve the Mt. Vernon community for years to come."