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Children teach peers to 'Stop and Think' through music
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by Matthew Smith
Staff Writer

Feb. 11, 2004

Susan Whitney-Wilkerson/The Gazette

Children participate in a final rehearsal Friday for "Stop and Think," a musical aimed at teaching children life lessons, by the Kensington Arts Theatre. Performances will be held this weekend.


Peer pressure, bullying and name calling are part of growing up for many children, and, although advice from parents and school is invaluable, sometimes children need to hear a positive message from someone their own age who speak their language.

That is the goal of "Stop and Think," a musical currently being produced by Kensington Arts Theatre at the Kensington Town Center. Rather than preaching values, such as patriotism, avoiding drugs and standing up to bullying, the play brings these messages to life through songs and skits.

Best of all, the cast is not some group of lecturing adults, but a group of 13 children -- ranging in age from 6 to 16. The young performers embody a range of personalities and experience, and they live in the communities they teach: Kensington, Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Potomac, Rockville and Wheaton.

"I've been having fun with it," said 10-year-old Hannah Johnston of Chevy Chase, one of the play's young performers. "All the other kids are really friendly, and I love singing."

Geared toward children, "Stop and Think" is a two-act musical that teaches kids the importance of being true to themselves. In 12 songs and a number of short skits, the child performers show that childhood problems can be overcome with a positive attitude and compassion for others.

The songs also speak to children through upbeat choreography, and the catchy verses invite the audience to sing along.

"They're all about having a good life because you're not doing drugs, and you're using common sense," Johnston said of the play's 12 songs.

"A lot of this stuff happens in regular life," added 10-year-old Simone Brown of Silver Spring, another member of the cast.

While many children are obsessed with being "cool," especially teenagers, she said the play teaches them to resist peer pressure and be true to themselves.

"Stop and Think" opened last weekend at the Kensington Town Center at 3710 Mitchell Street, and the kids will also perform the play at 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The show is the first children's production for Kensington Arts Theatre, which was established in town about 18 months ago.

The community theater company has generally done more adult-oriented fare such as the recent production of "Cabaret." The company's next production, "Into the Woods," will open March 5.

Elizabeth French, who is co-directing the musical along with Diego Prieto, said she originally found information on "Stop and Think" while searching the Internet for a children's show that would also carry a serious message. She came across the musical, written by Florida resident Dotti Holmberg-Waddell, and saw it as a way to promote self-esteem and common sense.

"I just love children," said French, who let her young actors and actresses give input on the musical numbers. "They have a voice, and I want them to know that."

About 30 area children auditioned for the show in December, and the selected performers have been rehearsing on weekends ever since.

"I like how there's so much action to it," said 10-year-old Jessica Koutsandreas of North Potomac, praising the show prior to a rehearsal Thursday. "There's lots of good choreography."

During the rehearsal, Kensington's "Right Choice Kids," as French calls the cast, shuffle between their marks on three raised platforms in front of the stage while demonstrating positive values and love of life. The songs are catchy and include a variety of styles -- from the island-tinged melody of "Uplift Your Attitude" to the early rock influence of "We Don't Want Your Drugs."

Some of the songs explore broader issues, such as protecting the environment, patriotism and caring for animals. Each performer also wears a slightly different costume to identify them as a swimmer, hockey player, soccer player, painter or other individual.

Brown said the costumes, which they choose, allow each kid to stand out. "It represents that we're all individuals," she said.

Each child also performs at least two solos.

"Chicken? You see any feathers on me?" Johnston belts out during a song about combating name-calling and peer pressure. She motions emphatically as she delivers her lines and exudes attitude to fit the part.

Megan Koutsandreas, 6, takes a quieter approach to her solo during a song about saying "yes" to life.

"Know that the sun is behind the clouds, you just have to believe it's true," she sings as she fidgets nervously with a Winnie the Pooh scrunchy on her wrist.

Watching the rehearsal from a chair in the audience, Marjorie Koutsandreas, whose daughters Jessica, Megan and 12-year-old Becca, said the play not only has a good message but has been a great way for her children to express their interest in theater.

Although this is their first time to perform with Kensington Arts Theatre, the girls have performed with other groups and put on their own shows for family and visitors at home.

"They do little mini practice shows in the basement," she said.

Many of the young actors and actresses are experienced performers, taking in part in productions, including "Julius Caesar," "Macbeth," "Cinderella" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

They agree, however, that "Stop and Think" is a unique experience that has been fun to produce and will have an impact on those who see the show.

Eleven-year-old Holly Trout of Silver Spring, who has never performed in a play, said she enjoyed being part of the show and hopes to get more roles after this appearance.

"I really like acting and drama," she said. "I thought this would be a good start for a small acting career."

"Stop and Think" is showing at 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Kensington Town Center, 3710 Mitchell Street.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for students and seniors and $10 for children ages 12 and under. For more information, call 301-547-7101 or visit www.katonline.org.


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