Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Montgomery-based Child’s Play Theatre ignites imagination April 9, 2015

I LEFT MY CAMERA AT HOME. Then I spotted a bald eagle scavenging in an open field. Shot missed.

A few miles later, after reaching our destination, St. Patrick’s Church in Shieldsville, I realized for the second time that I should have hauled my Canon DSLR with me.

But my husband and I were attending a theatrical production. And, as live theatre goes, photography is typically not allowed. Plus, lighting is often insufficient.

Still, I could have gotten some shots afterward of the seven young performers from Child’s Play Theatre Company who presented an impressionable drama on a portable stage in the fairly well lit St. Patrick’s Fellowship Hall.

This photo of "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" is courtesy of Child's Play Theatre and was taken by Chris Vilt.

This cast photo from “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” is courtesy of Child’s Play Theatre and was taken by Chris Vilt. Cast members, left to right, are Dylan Vilt, Ian Hanson, Aimee Ilkka, Amber Simon, Olivia Simon, Carolyn Mikel and Lucia Rynda.

Upon arrival, I had no idea what to expect. I knew only that we would be seeing Child’s Play Theatre’s production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, an introspective drama about Jewish children temporarily imprisoned in Terezin. Most of the 15,000 children held there eventually were shipped to Auschwitz and thus to a certain death in the gas chambers. Heavy stuff.

I thought an adult theatre troupe would perform the drama, even given the name “Child’s Play.” I wasn’t expecting seven Montgomery-Lonsdale-New Prague area performers ages 11 – 14 to take the stage. But they did. And the performance these youth delivered was deserving of the standing ovation we gave them.

First grader Kyle Ernste of Nerstrand Charter School painted this vivid butterfly which reminds me of Eric Carle's art.

First grader Kyle Ernste of Nerstrand Elementary School painted this butterfly, displayed at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault, 2012 Student Art Exhibit. Image used here for illustration purposes only and does not reflect art produced by Child’s Play Theatre participants. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Director Andrew (Andy) Velishek wasn’t exaggerating when he suggested, in his introductory remarks, to have a tissue handy. The depth to which these five actresses and two actors played their roles was haunting and memorable. I felt their fear, heard their anger and desperation, experienced their joy in imagining flowers and butterflies. As a poet, I connected with the poetry they read. In Terezin, children’s art and writings were buried and later uncovered.

Art mattered in Terezin. Just like it matters to Velishek, whom I talked with prior to the play. He is passionate about theatre. He’s been involved in more than 80 productions with 25-plus years of acting and 15 years of directing/producing experience.

And he’s passionate about helping children, especially, to use their imaginations and to learn and hone the craft of performing. This stay-at-home dad and sometimes substitute teacher has three boys ages nine months to five, the oldest ones already showing an interest in performing.

Child's Play Theatre presented an Improvisation Theatre Workshop

Child’s Play Theatre presented an Improvisation Theatre Workshop through Shakopee Community Education in 2013. That resulted in a 15-minute skit that included vampires, angels, bullies, a wolf and a dragon. Photo by and courtesy of Andy Velishek, Child’s Play Theatre.

Velishek travels from his Montgomery home base to southern Minnesota schools, community centers, libraries and more with his educational theatre company that draws youth on stage. Past productions include plays such as Beauty Is A Beast, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and Twinderella. He formed the theatre company in 2012 and, he says, is laying the foundation to keep community theatre alive.

Child's Play Theatre - Copy

His focus is on the kids. You won’t find a professional performer in the lead role with youth as just supporting cast, he says. If there are not enough parts in a script for kids, Velishek will write in roles.

You can hear the energy and passion in his voice, see it on-stage in the performances of those he directs. Butterfly even started a bit late because this director was so engaged in telling me about Child’s Play Theatre. Now that’s a man who loves what he does.

He teaches and encourages and celebrates success, noting to the audience that the cast of I Never Saw Another Butterfly was honored for Outstanding Achievement in Acting-Ensemble at the recent Minnesota Association of Community Theatres’ MACT Fest 2015.

When I the congratulated the cast of Butterfly for their performance at St. Patrick’s, their enthusiasm for theatre ran strong. Velishek is encouraging their creativity, building their confidence, teaching them that performing is a gift they can give back to their communities.

They’ve seen the butterflies and the flowers.

Child's Play Theatre includes all facets of a production, including creating and building the set. Photo by and courtesy of Andy Velishek, Child's Play Theatre.

Child’s Play Theatre includes creating and building the set. Photo by and courtesy of Andy Velishek, Child’s Play Theatre.

FYI: Here’s a sampling of upcoming Child’s Play Theatre camps/shows: Twinderella, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 16 at Twin Oaks Middle School (Prior Lake-Savage Schools); Disney’s The AristoCats Kids, 7 p.m. June 5 and 1 p.m. June 6, Tri-City United Schools in the Montgomery Middle School Auditorium; and Twinderella, 6 p.m. June 12, Owatonna Senior High School. For a full schedule, visit Child’s Play Theatre website by clicking here.

All productions include week-long camps for kids K-12 with registration done through local Community Education departments. Show tickets are available at the door and are kept at a family friendly cost, Velishek  says.

Velishek also offers theatrical opportunities to adults through Limelight Theatre Company, a division of Child’s Play Theatre. Limelight debuted at Next Chapter Winery south of New Prague last September with a dinner theatre production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.

© Text copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Child’s Play Theatre photos are copyright of Chris Vilt and Andy Velishek.