Parents and schoolteachers know that all kids go through stages. At Burlington’s Very Merry Theatre, it’s the actual stage that counts. Make that center stage. VMT, the brainchild of Donald Wright, began in 2002 as a summer drama camp in which a small herd of spirited children modified Shakespeare — call it Baby Bard.
Wright, who has a gift for adapting classics for kids without dumbing them down, didn’t stop there. Over the past six years, Very Merry has expanded to include theater programs at local schools, several summer camps, touring shows and a festival called WigWag! Stagefest, and has turned hundreds of kids ages 6 to 18 into eager thespians. And, by the way, better readers: Wright encourages families to read the selected works together before rehearsals even begin.
Some of the source material has been pretty heady — think Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But Very Merry has also lived up to its name with twisted takes such as King Lear, the Western and Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit. And not all the productions are exactly English-class material: Next month middle-schoolers put on Grease at Edmunds, and a summertime show adapts “The Lone Ranger.”
Along the way, VMT has employed the talents of some grown-ups, too, from board members to costume designers to musicians — Bill Mullins and Brett Hughes, among others, have composed original songs for such shows as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.
Very Merry has grown, well, dramatically, but Wright still isn’t resting on his laurels. This fall, he intends to launch the Very Merry Performing Arts Academy (the exact name may change) at a still-undisclosed location in Burlington’s Old North End. The academy will offer programs such as Saturday morning theater-arts classes, and serve as headquarters for VMT’s ongoing projects around the city. “Our goal is to provide everything from street theater to improvisation to dance to set building,” says Wright. “It’s an independent effort, but in concert with what’s been happening in the schools,” he adds, referring to VMT’s “partnerships” with Wheeler School and Edmunds.
This fall the nonprofit will also begin new collaborations with Flynn School and Burlington High School. “We don’t officially have the funding yet” for the BHS project, Wright cautions, noting that Very Merry piloted the program this year with its own money. The idea is that juniors and seniors would be eligible for stipends to become active leaders in VMT theater productions — choreographers, set designers, assistant directors and the like — and would simultaneously “mentor” the smaller fry. “The younger kids really look up to the older ones,” Wright says.
The academy “has been a dream of mine for several years,” he adds. “I think it’s really timely — there are so many things going on in the Old North End.” Wright reveals that he’s “started conversations” with some entrepreneurial adults in the area. Ultimately, it seems, Very Merry’s greatest act is building communities, on stage and off.
A "small" version of Very Merry Theatre's Peter Pan comes to the King Street Youth Center on Friday, May 2, at 4:30 p.m. Grease will be performed at Edmunds Middle School on Wednesday, May 7, 1 p.m.; Thursday, May 8, 4 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, May 9 & 10, 7 p.m. For more info about these and future performances and camps, visit www.verymerrytheatre.org.