“Again! Again!” yelled Artistic Director Sarah Beth Byrum as twelve kids ranging from five to 15 fifteen years old retracted their steps on the stage and restarted their song.
It’s rehearsal time for Peter Pan at Upstart Crow Studios in the Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene. The rehearsal room of Upstart Crow is littered with alligator costumes, plastic swords, patient parents, fairy wings and green cloth. Above the high-pitched chatter of the young children is the hollow thumping of stomping feet on the stage.
Upstart Crow Studios, a non-profit, began in February 2000 when founders Eularee Smith, Mary Huls and Byrum noticed a need for a theater and arts program that allowed all children to have a voice. The three women were teaching at the University of Oregon’s Talented and Gifted program and decided that allowing someone to choose who was talented left too many children on the sidelines.
“They were choosing who was ‘talented and gifted’. So we started Upstart Crow.” Smith said, after explaining how the term “upstart crow” was once used to describe Shakespeare.
Smith felt that too many children with needs to express themselves through the arts were being left out according to what someone else had deemed “talented and gifted”. After six years of holding class and rehearsals at community centers, in garages and school gyms, Upstart Crow Studios opened its own space at 855 W. 1st Avenue in February 2006. Once here Upstart was able to accept more students and increase its output.
The mission of Upstart Crow is to give every child a voice, regardless of ability or financial means. They choose to focus on creative expression rather than skill. All children, whether injured, on crutches, autistic or dealing with speech issues, are accepted and encouraged in Upstart Crow. The program also offers scholarships so that no child is turned away for financial reasons. Families and students are also allowed work-study arrangements to ease the financial burden. They firmly believe that the arts should be available to all, rather than a select group who is deemed worthy or whoever has the means to afford it.
In this production of Peter Pan, there are only 20 roles with more than 70 children involved. While this could provide a challenge for most other theater programs, Upstart Crow embraces it. Upstart Crow is dedicated to making sure that every child has a chance to be on stage. In order to make this possible the directors write extra lines, create characters and double cast for each role. Doing this allows every student to have his or her moment on stage. They also recognize that some children may not have an interest in a speaking or singing role, yet they still want to be on stage. Upstart Crow also accommodates these children.
“The opportunity to be on stage extends beyond theater,” Smith says.
Smith believes that theater arts and the on-stage experience it involves supports growth in more than just skill. She believes that the experience of being on stage in front of an audience also builds self-confidence, public speaking skill and team bonding.
Upstart Crow Studios offers different programs for the different aspirations and interests of their students. Stage Door is geared toward kids with serious acting goals. Center Stage is for the older kids involved at the intermediate level of acting. The triple threat program helps cultivate the skills of kids with dance, vocal or musical and acting skills. While Upstart accepts kids aged five to 18, several of those involved choose to come back as a volunteer, mentor or assistant.
“They don’t ever want to leave,” Smith says.
Discussion around the Whiteaker neighborhood is often centered on homelessness or drugs. Despite these negative aspects of the Whiteaker, the neighborhood actually offers many positive opportunities for youth to get involved. Upstart Crow Studios is one of these programs. Smith estimates that over a quarter of the students at Upstart come from homes in the Whiteaker.
During the rehearsal Byrum was critiquing the performance of the boy playing Peter Pan. He messed up his lines a couple times and was visibly feeling discouraged. Following the rehearsal of that scene Byrum took the boy aside to reassure him. It is obvious the valuable lessons and experiences the children involved at Upstart Crow Studios are gaining. Upstart has created a positive and encouraging environment for children to experience success and try new things.
The staff at Upstart Crow Studios is firmly dedicated to providing all children with an experience in the arts that is not tied to their skill or “talent”. They have done this by accepting all children, regardless of ability or disability. Their productions allow everyone to involved and create an environment in which everyone is comfortable, yet still exploring their own limits and how to move past them. In a part of Eugene that is often criticized, Upstart Crow provides children from all parts of Eugene with the opportunity to get involved, as participants and volunteers, and explore a new interest. Other options for theater and arts in Eugene are prevalent, but the experience at Upstart Crow is unlike any other.
While children scramble around the rehearsal room, practicing their lines and trying to find their costumes, parents chat amongst themselves and as they look on.
“It’s chaos,” Smith says. “Just chaos.”
Upstart Crow Studios – How to get involved
Upstart Crow is a non-profit operating mainly on donations and volunteers. Volunteer opportunities are available to parents and families of students, and past students or those with theater experience. All parents of students are encouraged to volunteer in some way throughout the year their children are involved.
Outside of volunteering, the general public is free to donate to Upstart Crow Studios. Because the cost of productions cannot me met through tuition and ticket sales alone, donations of any amount are welcome. Businesses also support Upstart, to help with covering production costs.
If you’re interested in contributing to Upstart Crow Studios, visit their website or call (541) 688-8260.
Other Youth Programs in the Whiteaker: Centro Latino Americano
Centro Latino Americano, a non-profit multicultural agency dedicated to the Latino community in Lane County, is also located in the Whiteaker and offers programs for middle school and high school aged youth. Centro Latino Americano’s youth mentor program allows young Latinos to be paired with an older mentor to provide guidance.
The Latino Youth Mentor Program, through extensive background work and training, matches an over-18 Latino adult with a Latino youth aged 11-17. This is only the second year of the program, but the impact has already been immense. Centro Latino Americano has found that having someone within in the Latino community with whom to relate provides the mentees with a healthy support system.
Outside of the youth mentor program, Centro Latino Americano also provides a wealth of other social services and resources, including free English classes, citizenship classes, affordable access to an Immigration Lawyer, linguistically appropriate alcohol and drug programs and playgroups for moms and children. Other services Centro Latino Americano provides for youth in Lane County are scholarship opportunities, as well as volunteer and internship programs.
To get involved, contact Centro Latino Americano at (541) 687-2667.