SUMMER SCHOOL: Little Foxes children’s theater begins with ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and a fundraiser for stricken director

91

AURORA | Very little in the way of plot, character and action gets by these young actors.

Long before opening day, the cast of more than 20 child performers in the Aurora Fox production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” made ties between the fantasy about candy baron Willy Wonka originally written by Roald Dahl and their everyday lives. They looked closely at the stage adaptation for deeper clues about theme and story. The kind of research that’s standard for seasoned actors is a matter of course for these elementary, middle and high school students.

“I’m constantly amazed at how much plot and story very little kids remember,” said Aurora Fox Executive Producer Charles Packard. “It was one of our little ones who noticed in the script that Charlie Bucket only gets one piece of chocolate a year. Before the Oompa Loompas came to work for Willy Wonka, they only got one piece of chocolate per year.

“It was a kid who noticed that before I noticed that,” added Packard, who’s co-directing the production that kicked off this week.

Offering young performers that kind of insight and opportunity has always been the mission of “Little Foxes,” the children’s summer program at the Aurora Fox theater. Kids get a chance to participate in a professional theater in every sense. As in past years, the “Chocolate Factory” cast formally auditioned for their roles, they’ve been expected to attend regular rehearsals and they’ve done the proper research to fully realize their characters. The cast for the separate production of “The Hobbit” that’s set to debut next month lived up to the same expectations.

“In just the four years I’ve been here I’ve learned so much as an actor,” said Matthew Lomas, the 15-year-old student from Smoky Hill High School playing Willy Wonka in “Chocolate Factory.” “I’ve gotten to see all the parts of theater, the designing and directing. All of that comes together, and you don’t see that as much in a school setting.”

The program has also offered a bridge to the Fox theater’s mainstage productions for many aspiring young actors. Alexis Porter, 13, has been involved in the “Little Foxes” program for several years, and has also landed roles in main stage Fox shows like “A Christmas Story.” The value of those experiences have gone beyond the stage and helped her in classes at Prairie Middle School.

“It’s easier to do projects in school. I know that they can hear me and understand,” Porter said, speaking to the value of vocal projection learned through theater. “I’m always the loudest one. They always tell me to use my inside voice; this is my inside voice.”

This summer offered the young actors even deeper lessons about perseverance and professional dedication. Robert Michael Sanders, a longtime director for the children’s program and a veteran actor of the Aurora Fox stage, was set to lead the production of “Chocolate Factory.” In April, Sanders reported for routine rotator cuff surgery at a Denver-area hospital. The doctors botched the surgery; Sanders suffered a spinal cord injury and lost function in both arms.

Following intense rounds of physical therapy, Sanders is slowly rebuilding function in his arms and hands. While Packard has taken on some of the directing duties for “Chocolate Factory,” Sanders has made a point to visit the theater and offer insights on the production.

“We all miss Robert Michael,” said Miles Goeglein, a 14-year-old student at the Denver School of the Arts who plays Mr. Salt in the show. Goeglein has also played roles in regular season shows at the Fox. “He brings an energy to all of his shows. He’s always helping … When he does come, it’s fun and it’s something we love to see.”

Delainey Porter, 16, went a step further.

“He’s my favorite director,” said Porter, a student at Thunder Ridge High School.

Learning from Sanders’ commitment, enthusiasm and work ethic aligns with the larger mission of the program, according to Packard. There are important themes about karma and humility in this show, a selection that runs a bit darker than past children’s productions like “Babe: The Sheep Pig” and “Charlotte’s Web.” The story of Willy Wonka and the children who stand to inherit his factory offers a wealth of lessons about what makes a good narrative.

And then there are the real-life tales that come through in the creative process, the stories of dedication that leave an imprint that’s far deeper than a single production.

“Some of these kids signed on because of Robert Michael,” Packard said. “He’s their Superman.”

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Runs until June 27 at the Aurora Fox theater, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.

Tickets start at $7.

Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org.

For more information about the fundraising effort for Aurora-based actor, musician and director Robert Michael Sanders, log on to bit.ly/Yib8Iz