Anna Kate Mohler says she comes from the world of improvisation. For Andy Zacharias, his background is in music composition. Together, the two have bridged their experiences for the Jewel Box Children’s Theater Company—a space for children to improvise, play games and create.
Unlike other theater programs that typically produce Broadway musicals, at Jewel Box, children create their own performances, which can be anything from fun, to wacky, to just out-of-the-box, said Mohler and Zacharias.
While every culture has its traditions of storytelling—which include music, dance, movement and theatrics, all passed down over generations, allowing everyone to be part of it—theater, on the other hand, can typically have a greater barrier to entry. There is generally an understanding that extensive training is required and that everything must be perfect, said Mohler, the nonprofit’s executive and artistic director.
But at Jewel Box, the priority is to show kids that there’s more than one way to do theater, and it’s not about striving for perfection, Mohler said.
“Just having a space where people feel invited to do things that sometimes are seen as exclusive is important,” Mohler said.
Youth involved in a Jewel Box Children’s Theater Company program are able to fully embrace their own creativity, said Zacharias, operations and music director.
“I love writing music with the kids because they think of things that I would never think about,” Zacharias said. “As adults, we tell ourselves that we have to do certain things in a certain way. … But kids—there’s no box, they just come up with ideas.”
While Zacharias helps to guide the technical aspects of the songwriting process, such as arranging and coming up with chords, youth take the lead, he said.
“It’s such a blast,” Zacharias said.
At Jewel Box, it’s not uncommon to see kids go from, “‘I can’t sing,” to singing, or sometimes just sitting and observing for weeks until they are empowered to participate, Mohler said. “It’s all about permission and being there, being accessible.”
Mohler in particular understands how kids can have unique needs—her mom put her in theater as a child in response to an anxiety disorder.
“It really did … change my life. I don’t think I’d be able to do as much as I do today,” Mohler said. “When I see kids that are dealing with the same thing … and when they have a breakthrough moment of joy, where they’re just in it, and they’re enjoying themselves, those moments for me are just like, ‘OK, yeah, this is why we do what we do.’”
“That’s the best, when you see kids, just in community, you know, giggling and laughing and enjoying life instead of being scared of everything, because this is a scary world,” Mohler added. “It’s a very different world kids need—they need more light. They need more permission to have fun.”
On any given week, Jewel Box can be found at an after-school program with the Long Beach Unified School District, teaching a community class at the Signal Hill Library, or sometimes putting on a workshop with the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, TCC Family Health, Young Horizons, the Long Beach Symphony or the Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital, just to name a few of the organization’s community collaborations.
”This is kind of something we pride ourselves in, is always being there,” Zacharias said.
Part of the nonprofit’s mission is to build bridges in the community, and since its 2016 founding, it has grown to become an accessible space for young creatives with an emphasis on equity.
While, like most organizations, Jewel Box switched to virtual programming at the start of the pandemic, it did not return to its in-person offerings until this past December. But since then, it has continued to offer online classes.
“There will always be kids that cannot come and take a class in person,” Mohler said. “If we’re talking about being accessible, we need to be available to kids online.”
The bulk of Jewel Box’s programming is free and grant-supported, apart from its conservatory program, which is offered each summer at the Long Beach Playhouse. However, no student has ever been turned away from the conservatory due to not being able to pay, Mohler said.
Now, Jewel Box Children’s Theater Company is stepping into its next growth opportunity—a home of its own, which Mohler and Zacharias recently secured in West Long Beach.
The new location is located in the heart of where much of Jewel Box’s work has taken place. It is in close proximity to Cabrillo High School, Hudson and Garfield elementary schools, and Admiral Kidd Park.
“We know that it’s the right place to be,” Mohler said. “I’m super excited to see what we’re able to pull off now.”
Since signing their lease last month, work has been underway to get the space ready for rehearsals and workshops. Mohler and Zacharias are hoping to have a soft opening this summer.
Eventually, the plan will be to leave the organization to one of its students—in the meantime, the focus is on building up an organization that would be “awesome to inherit,” Mohler said.
Having a safe space to commune and create is not only healthy and “good for the soul,” but is an essential community resource, Mohler and Zacharias said.
“You leave your stuff at the door, you know? It’s a good place to find common ground and to be artistic at the same time,” Mohler said.
“To see kids together, making discoveries—that, to me is just everything,” Mohler said.