Travis Wade (left, with hat), runs and after school theatre arts program for North Long Beach youth. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Delinquent children, a church play and the holiday season. Anyone familiar with Barbara Robinson knows the story of the Herdman children, who while searching for snacks at a local church, landed spots in its annual Christmas play. But, sometimes the line between Robinson’s 1971 play adaptation of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and reality can be a bit blurred for Travis Wade, a volunteer director at Light and Life Christian Fellowship Church in North Long Beach.
When the lights dim and the fictional Herdmans’ take the stage, the parallels to Wade’s rough-and-tumble bunch will be striking. Friday, November 30 marks the second production be put on by the after-school program that he heads, offering a place for children to learn the theatre arts in a heavily gang-influenced part of the city. Wade knows the challenges but his love for teaching helps prop up his relentless optimism.
“We have kids in here that might fight and butt heads with a lot of kids at school,” Wade said. “And now all of a sudden they’re on the same team that they’re fighting with at school and they’re coming together to accomplish the same purpose. All of a sudden your enemy is your friend and we’ve got to come together and put on a great show. That‘s what I love to see.”
Wade moved to California from Colorado nearly four years ago, packing up his family and traversing the Rockies to take a job producing videos for non-profit organizations. The theater had always been a part of his life but he never imagined he’d be producing plays for his congregation. That all changed though, after a moving service that reinvigorated his passion for stage and provided the drive to provide the opportunity for kids in this community.
“It was a good sermon and I saw the need,” Wade said. “And it all kinda came together. We’ve got a great resource here. We’ve got this awesome new building. We could really do something here. And the kids are right here. They’re right across the parking lot.”
In January, with the help of the church—which offered up its community center—and donations from groups including the Long Beach Council for the Arts, Wade was outfitted with a venue stocked with a stage, lighting and sound. Although the church owns the building, the program was made to be secular and they welcomed all children interested in acting. Volunteers provide workshops on how to run the new technology that adorned the space. He just needed talent to put on the stage.
So, Wade went to work. He began networking with the administrators at Micro Enterprise Charter Academy, which rests adjacent to the church. He went classroom to classroom, selling children on the merits of the thespian life. Soon, he had enough kids to put on a play.
The program’s first production, James and the Giant Peach, was challenging. Many times parents couldn’t arrange for their children to make it to practices. Others pitched in where they could, providing meals for hungry and tired actors and helping build sets. The fact remained though, his playbill was filled with children participating in their first play with some not showing up for the performance. But, Wade pushed on through the absences and growing pains of an all-volunteer run outfit, keeping his calm and the show went on. The audience settled into their seats that cost three dollars each which included dessert and it was a hit.
“It was chaos but it was somehow organized chaos,” said Sarah Duran, the volunteer makeup artist who helped transform the children into insects for the performance. “I don’t know how Travis get the kids to do what he needs them to do. I don’t know how they pulled it off but it was flawless. The audience had no idea of the chaos going on behind the scenes.”
The madness is a product of both unfamiliarity and growing pains. In addition to making their acting debuts, the children also assist with lighting, sound and set design. For the upcoming show, they turned the community center building into a makeshift winter wonderland complete with Christmas trees, lights and handmade snowflakes cascading from the ceiling.
Fernando Cardiel, an engineer for the Department of Water and Power and church parishioner, oversees the set building. He designed the 8x12 foot giant peach for April’s show that was mounted on wheels which allowed it to be turned to change from the outside to the inside of the fruit. As much as he enjoys being entrenched in brainstorming and pushing the limits of set design, he can’t help but notice the progress the kids in the program have made.
“Phenomenal,” Cardiel said. “There’s something about putting on a performance…they rose to the occasion. The plays and performances they did were stellar. Remarkable!”
Fourteen-year-old Ian Hauser who plays the role of Charlie in Friday’s play looks past the intense rehearsal schedule that often requires the kids to spend several nights a week practicing lines for a play that doesn’t earn them school credits. Hauser has no regrets about his time spent on set though.
“There are a lot of activities right now so it’s pretty hard but it’s not impossible,” Hauser said of the hectic schedule leading up to opening night. “It takes a while to get there but it’s worth it.”
Wade also believes that the hard work he puts into the program is outweighed by the benefits it provides the community. He hopes that one day the program can reach out to other schools in the area and expand it’s production to include video elements that will greater enhance the educational experience of his kids. He asks for nothing in return, but only hopes that one day this program could be the first stepping stone for somebody to discover their direction.
“It’s just been awesome,“ Wade said. “They have a safe place to hang out instead of being at home while mom and dad are at work. They’re getting an experience that they might otherwise not have had. And they’re learning. What else can you ask for?”
Light and Life Christian Fellowship’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever opens Friday November 30 at 7PM. Other performances will be held December 1, 7 and 8. Tickets are $3 with all proceeds going back into the program to fund future performances. The church’s community center is located at 5951 Downey Ave.