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COVER STORY
Still Making Magic
After 50 years, The Magic Circle Theater group's star shines brightly

Photos by Rose Lincoln

Tufts costume designer Virginia Johnson paints the stage for Sleeping Beauty
   
It has been several weeks since a group of 11- to 15-year-olds first gathered in Balch Arena Theater for the start of another summer of performances as part of the arts group known as Magic Circle. Now, after learning their lines, they’re ready for a dress rehearsal of The Frog Prince.

Handmaidens costumed in heavy brocade dresses mill about and whisper among themselves in the darkened audience, while in the makeshift grotto on the stage beneath them (where the frog prince resides) more players wait, dressed entirely in black, distinguished only by the handsome frog puppets on their heads. Although it is a steamy 95 degrees outside, the theater is chilly, 55 degrees at best, but the players don’t seem to mind. They have bigger issues to worry about, such as making sure bobby pins are keeping crowns and veils in place, and that costumes still held together by safety pins remain where they should.

As the grotto dragon dons his own elaborate green costume that outfits him head to toe, another player, already miked in the theater’s technical booth, starts to sing the Barney theme song as giggles and groans collectively erupt. “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family….”

A deafening screech emits from the wireless microphone, abruptly ending the impromptu solo and sending the still-chuckling cast grabbing for their ears. It’s just another day at the Magic Circle.


A light crew member makes an adjustment  
Behind the Scenes
It’s hard not to be impressed by the free and playful spirit of Magic Circle and maybe that’s why it’s survived so long. Started in 1952, the Magic Circle Theater is New England’s oldest dramatic arts group for children and is counted among one of the oldest in the United States, preceded only by a handful such as California’s prestigious Palo Alto Children’s Theater and the San Diego Junior Theatre (with 63 and 54 years of existence, respectively). It is open to children in the Tufts community, as well as those who live in the surrounding areas of Medford, Somerville and Cambridge.

In its five decades of being, the Magic Circle summer program’s philosophy has not strayed dramatically from its original intent: to provide children with a six-week, well-rounded, all-encompassing theater experience that, in the end, is not all about the performance, but rather the path and process to getting there. Kids work onstage and behind the scenes: acting in one play, making costumes or sets for another; rehearsing The Frog Prince in the morning, while operating lights and monitoring sounds for James and the Giant Peach in the afternoon. This is theater from front to back, and up and down, with the help from a handful of adults who—like the kids—keep coming back for more.

“This is what I look forward to all year long,” says Samantha Quest-Neubert, 15, a resident of Medford whose older sister, Joanna, is a Magic Circle alumna. “In this camp, you don’t have to worry about being someone else, you’re just yourself.”

What you do have to worry about is getting in. According to executive director Joanne Barnett, 65 children from ages 11 to 15 are selected for Magic Circle, taken from a pool of approximately 90 who must apply and audition for a slot in January. A younger group, the 15-year-old Creative Arts/Jackson Troupe, picks 100 of the 200 applicants ages 8 to 11 for what could be described as a prelude to Magic Circle. Of the six-week July to August encounter, three shows are produced and played by the end of the third week. It is an intense process of planning, preparation and, ultimately, performance.

“We’re an empowerment camp focused around the arts,” says Luke Jorgensen, G00, artistic director of the Tufts Children’s Theater programs. “The goal is that these kids figure out who they are. I’m hoping they can express themselves here and gain confidence.”

“A lot of kids don’t get to tell their story,” he says. “This is a place where they’re heard.”

     
   

MAGIC CIRCLE
1952–2002

What has changed...

 
   
Participants
1952   25
2002   65
 
   
Tuition
1952   $120
2002   $1000
   
Ticket prices
1952   $.50
2002   $10
   
Above: a scene from a Magic Circle production of Alice in Wonderland, 1961
     

Jorgensen’s sentiments are like echoes of comments made by theater director and producer Viola Spolin in the 1963 tome, Improvisation for the Theater, remarking on the important role that performance could play in the life of a child. “There are few places outside his own play where a child can contribute to the world in which he finds himself. His world: dominated by adults who tell him what to do and when to do it—benevolent tyrants who dispense gifts to their ‘good’ subjects and punishment to their ‘bad’ ones, who are amused at the ‘cleverness’ of children and annoyed by their ‘stupidities.’”

A harsh view, perhaps, but one that clearly portrays the world in which our children live, in toto, with the troubling realities they face. Problems at home? Not accepted by your peers? Having a bad-hair day? All that typical teen strife and more can work to your advantage on stage and behind the scenes. Jorgensen says that Magic Circle celebrates the individualities of the children accepted into the program each year, putting to good use the “pressure cooker of impulses” that kids this age have at their disposal.

The same could be said back when the program started in 1952, when Karla Feinzig Ellenbogen, J61, G65—an aspiring 12-year-old actress—was among the first 25 players accepted to Magic Circle. “Getting up in front of an audience is good for kids,” she says. “It strokes the ego when you hear applause. It promotes self-esteem, it teaches you to project. You took pride in what you did . . . and I made friendships that have lasted a lifetime.”

So, though the world has changed immensely over the past 50 years—in school dress codes and curricula, in the amount of stresses in our society, and in increasing crime and violence at home and abroad—some things, like Magic Circle, have remained, for the most part, unchanged.

“I think the goals are still valid goals,” says Iris Fanger, G72, a former artistic director of Magic Circle from 1965 to 1969 and 1972, as well as former dance critic for the Boston Herald. “The goals are the same educational goals of all children’s education. It’s a marvelous summer of camaraderie, it’s an amazing bonding experience, and it’s all a very democratic process. That feeling good about yourself is very positive. Magic Circle is a creative endeavor for children. It’s stretching your mind, proving your abilities and having the sense of satisfaction when you do a good job. The goals were valid then, and they’re valid now. That hasn’t changed.”

“This camp,” says Jorgensen, “remains a safe place.”

Hildegard (Rachel McHugh)
and Gerhilde (Alice Silver-Heilman) play to the audience in The Frog Prince.
   
The Process
In a theater group for the children and by the children, certain traditions tend to fall by the wayside. As part of last summer’s 50th anniversary commemoration, Jorgensen selected Sleeping Beauty—one of the three plays performed during that first 1952 season—as one of the three for the summer of 2002.

Rest assured, this was not the version of Sleeping Beauty that you may remember. Last year’s players decided that it wasn’t only going to take a prince’s kiss to break the evil witch’s spell on the long-sleeping princess, but also a growing self-awareness about her own inner strength. Magic Circle participants are encouraged to follow the framework of a well-established play while subtly—or sometimes not so subtly—making it all their own.

“There are not many chances these days to explore creativity,” says Sherwood “Doc” Collins, who came to the Tufts Theater Department in 1961, retiring in 1993 after 13 years as its chairperson. “At Magic Circle, you explore the inner person . . . you get that sense of creating something from putting yourself on the line.”
“This is an extremely improvisational process, and the kids build characters as they go along,” says Jorgensen. “So much of the improvisational school is to get acting back to a childlike, but not childish, stage.”

It is a process that works well for the kids involved. While some come to Magic Circle as an alternative choice from baseball or tennis camp, and others come out of a strong interest in theater, all say what brings them back, year after year, is the feeling of acceptance they receive and relish.

“You don’t have to worry about too many kids making fun of you,” says Jesse Munitz-Alessio, 15, a Magic Circle veteran who has been attending since the second grade.

“The counselors know what they’re doing,” chimes in 14-year-old Max Lopes. “I think you can learn something from everyone you meet here.”

For the parents, most of whom attend two or three of their children’s five scheduled performances, Magic Circle is a teen utopia nestled within the Tufts community, offering shelter, kinship and security during a typically rocky stage of development.

“I think the sense of community is the standout,” says Jesse’s mom, Deidre Alessio, whose older son, Gabriel, is a program alumnus. “There’s a feeling of tolerance . . . and the kids wildly support each other. It’s an incredibly nurturing, loving environment.”

“This whole program is such an empowering, creative program,” says Steve Neubert, father of Samantha Quest-Neubert. “There’s not a star system involved here, which makes it so strong. My sense is all the way through, it’s been such a positive social experience and it’s because they all feel connected. The younger kids are embraced by the older kids.”

And while some of the current Magic Circle crop may choose to follow in the now famous footsteps of those that came before them—actors Ted Reinstein and Frank Langella, Boston television political commentator Jon Keller, Broadway costume designer Jesse Goldstein, writer and actor Richard Levine, and Shakespeare & Company’s Jonathan Epstein—others will walk away with an invigorated sense of self that is often hard to come by at the age of 15.

“It takes an awful lot of ego to entertain people,” says Doc Collins. ”Magic Circle builds the confidence that you can do things.”

Herein lies the not-so-secret gift of Magic Circle, as prophetically spoken by Max Lopes as Lord Chamberlain in last year’s Sleeping Beauty.

“A gift to a child,” says Chamberlain, “is always a pleasure.”