My Time with the Walpole Children’s Theatre

Entering my fourth year as a Ph.D. Student in Theatre and Performance Studies, it is unsurprising that the existential anxiety of graduate school has kicked in hard. These days, familiar questions bubble up frequently: Is this degree worth it? What does a degree like this afford me, and others, in this precarious world we now face? Who am I helping, and why? How do I answer these questions today?

These current times evidence that the most lasting impact many of us can hope to achieve is increasingly local. This is especially the case for theatre artists and organizations who now have to reckon with the fact that the greatest gift we can give – our presence, our voice, our breath – is the thing we as a society are most endangered by. However, as an artist and scholar, one of the deepest sources of inspiration and hope I draw on is the belief that theatre has been training me for this crisis of empathy my entire life.  Though the smallness of our world feels dangerous now, our digital proximity gives us the chance to safely redistribute this sense of the local to others, both near and far, inside and outside our own insular circles.

With this weighing on my mind post-spring, I was heartened and excited to read of the Humanities Engage opportunity, which could help answer these questions in a practical, direct, and immediate sense. I proposed an internship with the organization nearest and dearest to my roots and heart: the Walpole Children’s Theatre in Walpole, MA. I had been thinking about ways to sync up with WCT since October 2019, when I returned home to attend their 50th anniversary celebration. Half a year later, the serendipity of having nothing but flexibility in my schedule – combined with the chance to give back to my community through Pitt’s generous support – has made this summer of “what-ifs” and “should-bes” less bitter and much more purposeful.

As I was reminded in October, WCT was founded in 1969 by an Emerson College student outside Boston. They are the definition of “small but scrappy.” Incorporated in 1992, they survive on a shoe-string budget through the volunteerism and grass-roots efforts of a dedicated band of board members and crew, alumni, and casts of actors aged ten-to-twenty. Per their mission statement, they operate as “a specialized group with the sole intention to educate, enlighten, and entertain youths in the local community.” Truly spanning the test of time for half a century, this now-fixture in my small hometown community is both utterly mundane and yet something of a miracle. On the one hand, WCT is a microcosmic drop in the bucket, and on the other, they are truly macrocosmic in their local, national, and even international reach. While most scholars look at sites that reach some critical threshold, not many but the town newspaper are itching to document the scale and scope of these “amateur” theatre circles. Yet, this scholarly neglect misses the actual impact such groups achieve on their communities.

I was an active member of this organization from 1997-2007, working on roughly nineteen shows. I was hooked as soon as I turned ten, and I left at twenty not from disinterest or inability to continue working behind the scenes, but because my own journey in theatre was “just beginning.” This is the lie I told myself for a while, but the truth is that my career in this field had actually already begun when I was just a kid, already at work then for WCT. Few people are blessed to have the ability to trace a path from their current field to their childhood dreams and hobbies.  Yet that potential can and does exist for many in the arts. This idea may be quaint or naive, but it is these types of extra-curricular activities that really define the kinds of longitudinal engagement a life in the Humanities can provide.

My original proposal with WCT focused on grants and fundraising, as well as archival projects and narrating this history in more detail. While these projects are important and will move forward in time, part of this collaboration – answering the “why” in the above questions – has meant shifting priorities to address the existential moment the whole world is in now. Most recently, WCT organized a taskforce on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in order to assess past and current practices and to derive deliberate actions for a more accessible and progressive agenda moving forward. Our conversations are vibrant, difficult, and most importantly, ongoing.  

I am humbled and proud to partner with this group as an educator, artist, and friend, for I have only become a teacher, actor, and better person over time because of WCT.

Christopher Staley
Theatre and Performance Studies
July 28, 2020

For my reflections post-immersive, please see Learning to Forget What We Think We Know.

Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.