BY KANNA DEUTSCH
“The stars look down and see a future bright at last.” The cast of Billy Elliot on Broadway sings these lyrics during the play’s opening number and, this past month, one of those cast members was a young boy from the Oklahoma City area. The final words of his biography in the show’s playbill read, “This one’s for you Toby.” Toby is Toby Tobin, the Performing Arts Program Coordinator at NW Optimist Performing Arts Recreation Center in Oklahoma City. Assisted by a small staff and “a whistle that’s killer”, she runs summer camps and year-round classes to teach the craft of performance art to young, aspiring thespians.
This year is Tobin’s seventeenth year with the Parks and Recreation department, the first four of which were part-time and the rest full-time. After obtaining a two-year degree from St. Gregory’s, Tobin went on to Oklahoma University, where she graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts.
Over the years, Tobin has seen a number of her young actors and dancers grow into professional performers, including her own daughter, who is a successful singer/songwriter in Los Angeles. One of her current assistants says that his experience in the camps and classes broadened his horizons, helping him to learn more about himself. “I’ve learned so much more in the five to six years that I’ve been here. I’ve learned to make friends, to open up a bit more, to be the weird person that I am. It started my career as an actor,” he says. Another one of Tobin’s children used her talents not to convince an agent to hire her, but instead to convince her school’s faculty that she was blind and, therefore, could not take that day’s exam.
Watching her students become professional performing artists is clearly a point of pride for Tobin. “If I had a lot of money, I’d have a lot of kids, but I don’t so I have to borrow other people’s kids,” she says. Theater is often seen as a dying medium, with more emphasis being given to television and movies. Keeping the beauty of theater alive is both a passion of Tobin’s and a prime mission of the summer camps and year round drama classes. “I like opening the kids’ eyes to theater. It’s an art that you have to keep reintroducing,” she states. Even for those who are not looking to pursue a theater career, Tobin says that, “There is no field that you can go into that this experience won’t be helpful.”
Enrollment is available for kids from ages six to seventeen. The classes during the school year max out at about 15 and the average summer camp size ranges from 35 to 50. “Actually fifty is too many, but sometimes I get a kid and they look at me with their big blues,” Tobin says. While her heart wavers in the face of baby blues, her principles concerning the program’s purpose remain steadfast. “One of my standard things is if you guys need a babysitter, you’re in the wrong place,” she says. Not to be confused with a day care, the program is for youths who genuinely wish to study the craft. “They work their tails off, even the six and seven year olds.” For Tobin, working hard in the theater stems from taking ownership of the theater. “We start every day with a company meeting. I love it when they feel like they’re part of the company. They take ownership of the company—come out of their shell.”
Tobin insists that every student performs at least two lines in every production. “Every kid gets a part, even if I have to write it in myself,” she says, adding, “I think it’s important that they be a part of live theater, and have a feeling of everyone standing and clapping for them.” In a very Glee fashion, her strategy exposes otherwise introverted kids to the thrill of performance and creates a shared sense of ownership within the company.
Her ideas must be working, for not only are students consistently returning every year, but former students are also returning as employees. The majority of Tobin’s junior staffers were kids who came up through the camps and decided to stay and work as instructors. Isaiah, a former student and current employee, says, “I started coming to the camps in ’07. I saw the Independence [Middle School] show and I thought, I had to be back next semester.” And when those kids grow up, they send their kids. “I’m teaching the kids of some of my first kids,” Tobin says proudly.
With the consistent enrollment growth the company has been experiencing, it will soon need more room than the space they currently operate in. While Tobin is very grateful for the space she has been given, she says that she needs a larger arena in order to build, “a place that’s just for them [and where] kids can be kids . . .I don’t want to have them under my thumb, I don’t want to stifle any of their creativity.” In a larger arena, Tobin says she could consider installing a fly system, a system used to make objects or people “fly” across a stage. However, fly systems use up a large amount of funds as well as space.
Helping to provide such funds is Back Stage Players, an organization created by “folks that are invested in the success of the camps.” “All they care about is taking care of the kids,” says Tobin. All proceeds go directly to the NW Optimist Performing Arts Recreation Center. Those involved with Back Stage Players also help build props and sets. Just recently, the non-profit purchased new mirrors for the studio.
“When I first started, this was an empty building and now it’s full of life,” Tobin says when I ask what her favorite aspects of running these camps and classes are. The “life” she talks about is evident everywhere. Even as a stranger walking in, I can see the work-in-progress sets assembled on the side, several Crayola flower and name signs taped to the wall, and the leftover glitter on the floor that will never completely vacuum away. When I asked what her least favorite aspects are, she pauses for a second, looks up at me, and says, “I love my job—what’s not to like?”
For more information about community theater for children offered through the Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation Department, contact Toby Tobin at (405) 841-2414. The Northwest Optimist Performing Arts Center is located at 3301 Northwest Grand Boulevard, Oklahoma City, OK 73116. The Backstage Players are in need of financial and in-kind support and can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BackstagePlayers.Share story on Facebook Share story on Twitter Email a Friend.