By Jean Redstone
Oh my goodness it’s déjà vu. At least it’s deja movie view.
It’s youngsters banding together, singing, dancing, dressing up and doing it on stage. Yes folks, there might be trouble, right here in Swedesboro City and only a band and chorus can save us.
“Music Man” quips aside, if you’re a buff of old movies you can’t help think of the Swedesboro Woolwich Little Theater in terms of young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, bored on the back steps, and suddenly exclaiming in unison, “Let’s put on a show!”
Before you can tap your heels together three times, the back barn, or empty garage or old gazebo is turned into a glittering stage with a band, gauze curtains, colorful costumes, dancing lights…in short, magic happens.
Magic seems to be the theme of the Swedesboro Woolwich Little Theater (SWLT) from its inception some five years ago to now. Rife with magical stage moments and a happy preference for the many magical worlds of Disney, SWLT is the area‘s only non-profit, privately-owned stage theater group.
The “Little” in the name refers not to the size of the productions, but to the actors. They are all children. It’s kids putting on shows, working backstage, dealing with sets and costumes, lights and music.
And they even willingly pick up after themselves when they’re done. When was the last time that happened at your house?
All this magic began with Dana Petrini — and she began as an old lady with a shawl. And a shoe. “I was 7 years old and my second grade teacher put me in my first play. I was the old lady in the shoe. I remember I had a little bonnet, a shawl and glasses. I thought I was an adorable old lady in a shoe.
“It was my beginning. I loved being in the show and that summer I joined the West Deptford Little Theater.” WDLT, a program established by the township recreation department, became Petrini’s model for SWLT.
Petrini, who lives in West Deptford, is a teacher in the Swedesboro-Woolwich district, currently teaching third grade special education classes. In 2010, however, she was a special education teacher for second grade at Stratton Elementary school. The principal there asked her to direct the second grade drama club, an after-school activity that culminated in a play.
“We had so much fun,” Petrini recalled. So much that when she moved to teaching third grade (at Harker Elementary), she continued producing the second grade play at her new school. “I just kind of kept at it and a few years later I opened SWLT and filled out all the forms to become a nonprofit organization.”
Well, this is not quite the whole story. Petrini, it seems, was repeatedly petitioned to begin a theater group for children in the Swedesboro area. Patti Martin, president of the SWLT board of directors, watched her daughter, Patrice, in one of the second grade plays.
“We saw a bunch of kids really enjoying themselves. It was really neat to see the kids, boys and girls, getting into a stage show. And they learned so much – music and organizing and planning. As a teacher I was absolutely thrilled with what I saw,” Martin said.
“So when (Petrini) mentioned she was thinking of doing more during the summer, we joined other parents in encouraging that.” By “we”, Martin means herself and her husband, Ed, now treasurer of the SWLT board of directors.
In the past five years, the SWLT program, “essentially a summer program,” Martin said, has grown from young elementary-age children to include children from K-12, with a little leeway in ages on either side. The 100 or so students each year are now divided into three age groups, Rising Stars, youngest; Show Stoppers, grades 5-8; and SWLT Players, the oldest.
“We’re a little organization but hope to keep growing, fingers crossed,” Petrini said. She set up the group to be “sort of a day camp in summer” and the camp runs “primarily in the month of July but we do performances throughout the year. We perform at Swedesboro-Woolwich Day in September, Fun Day in May and the Christmas parade. We go to nursing homes, and do a holiday show. This year we’re also performing (March 11) for the HEADstrong Foundation at its (fundraiser) gala in Philadelphia.”
While still growing, the theater group has engaged many in the Swedesboro area, and not just her family. “My mom is my costume lady and my dad works the concession stand and anywhere else we need him,” she said. But already there is a paid staff of eight, including Petrini, who takes a salary to head the group, and a choreographer, among others. Everyone else volunteers their time.
Petrini said SWLT has become a central portion of her life. “It’s definitely my love. I love teaching and I love teaching in my theater program. I’m not married and have no children, but I feel like I’ve raised many, many kids.”
That feeling is resoundingly echoed by parents of children in the group, who expressed their belief the success of the theater is mainly due to Petrini’s interaction with the kids. “She cultivates the kids,” said Jennifer Battaglia, mom of Joey Battaglia, 13. “He loved (being in the plays) from second grade. He wants to be in theater and she’s very good at including everybody and encouraging them.”
Battaglia said her son was a little shy and I was fearful, “He’d be sitting home too much, sleeping all day.” His enrollment in a theater group found him gaining confidence and working with other children, she said.
Joey, who began his theater interest by becoming Africa in Petrini’s second grade play ‘Around the World’, mostly remembers how much fun it was. “I played a lion in Africa who talked about soccer and I sang something Chakira wrote for the World Cup in 2010,” he recalled.
“It was the first time I ever performed and I was, kind of like, ‘Oh, there’ll be people watching. Whatever.’ I wasn’t frightened. I’m kind of laid back.”
His involvement, however, led to his desire to do more performing. “I love to entertain people. I like to make people laugh and I like to pretend. I like it if people like what I do or give me useful criticism. It gives me confidence and a feeling good about myself.”
Joey, who played the Huntsman in SWLT’s production of “Snow White”, said he is more and more interested in going to college for cinematography. “I like everything about it, makeup, writing, acting, direction, filming.”
He is not the only student who has found strengths from performing. Jessica Lewis, 10, of Woolwich, was “a little girl who would not leave my side,” said her mom, Stacey Lewis. “She was shy but showed a lot of creativity.” But when Jessica played an orphan in “Annie” with Petrini directing, “it built her confidence. She asked for voice and dance lessons.”
Jessica said she loves the theater group “because I love how Ms. Petrini works with us and I like singing and acting the character. I like pretending and I dance.” She did all of that in the theater’s recent “Snow White”.
“I was Esmeralda, the Evil Queen as a little girl. She’s the girl but the evil queen was her so I acted like an evil queen being a little girl.” This is a position you can’t argue with.
Yet Jessica got more out of the experience. “What makes it fun is you get to be someone else…totally be someone else on stage. I loved being Esmeralda because I’ve never been evil.” When asked, Jessica promised she wouldn’t start now.
But having gone through the process, Jessica said, she could better understand how another person feels about something. She is learning empathy.
Her younger sister, Danielle, 8, has also joined the theater and was in “Snow White” with Jessica. “I’m a Disney fan and I liked Snow White because I got to be Happy.” That’s the dwarf, Happy. “I like acting because it’s fun and you get to dance around and sing. And because you’re in costume and I like audiences a lot.”
As director, Petrini noted that sometimes little girls come in costume to help explain the pull performing can hold over kids.
Not just kids, apparently. The success of the Little Theater in an area not served by one until now, (the group rehearses and performs at Kingsway High) has Petrini considering another option. “I’ve been asked to do an adult theater, and we’re thinking about it,” she said, almost certainly making local adults with a love of theater perk up and start practicing their stagecraft skills.