Ten kids waived pool noodles and danced around on stage at the Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary Auditorium, gladly giving up their spring break for the opportunity.
They were rehearsing "Bratty Brother in Outer Space," the upcoming play from the children’s theater group Park Dale Players. The organization produces original musicals starring Encinitas Union School District students, offering them an alternative to sitting at home during the summer and two-week breaks in fall and spring.
During a whirlwind two weeks, local third through sixth graders (up to tenth graders during summer sessions) rehearse and then perform a roughly 90-minute musical.
Director Pat Lydersen writes the plays and Wendy Woolf composes music for them. Several of their works have been published and performed as far away as Australia.
"It’s really cool to see them take on a life of their own outside of this area," Woolf said.
Nearly three decades ago, Lydersen co-founded Park Dale Players, which started as adults performing original plays at Park Dale Lane Elementary and teaching drama workshops for children. In 1999, the group began its musical program in the Encinitas school district and has continued after-school acting and dance workshops for kids.
"I just love it — that’s the simple answer," said Lydersen when asked what keeps her motivated.
Lydersen cited the silly humor of "Monty Python" as a big influence on her writing. Another has been her family, with her son and daughter’s love-hate dynamic when they were younger informing "Bratty Brother in Outer Space." In the play, the character Alice wishes her little brother would disappear — that is, until he’s beamed into outer space to become part of a young alien’s science project.
"It’s about how when you’re a kid you might want your sibling to go away, but you really love them at the end of the day," said Lydersen, who has a master’s degree in theater from Penn State University. And she has more than 35 years of experience as an actress, director, teacher and playwright.
Her dedication to teaching kids theater earned her a spot in "Hidden Treasures," an upcoming exhibit that features unsung leaders in Encinitas. It will chart her journey from a dancer growing up in New York City to present.
She makes a point to write ensemble plays, so each kid — whether they’ve stepped on a stage or not — has at least a few lines, unlike a traditional musical in which a few leads perform most of the show. That way, all the kids are engaged throughout and get a chance to improve.
The goal, Lydersen said, is to instill a love for theater. Another aim is fostering creativity and confidence.
Two parents told the Encinitas Advocate that Park Dale Players is a critical part of the local theater landscape, especially since the Encinitas school district doesn’t offer anything like it. They also said they appreciate that the program runs during school breaks, largely avoiding an impact on school or other extracurricular activities.
Sixth grader Ella Darlington and third grader Natalie Siljander said they’re happy to spend spring break taking part in the musical.
"It’s worth it," Natalie said, noting she’s been in a few of the productions. "The environment is nice and so are the people."
Ella said she doesn’t get nervous performing, since she’s among good friends on stage. Third grader Thomas Walsh said he wanted to be in the musical because he read a description and "it sounded funny and fun."
The musicals are family affairs. Lydersen’s daughter, Joanna, is a driving force as the dance choreographer, for instance. Others close to Lydersen and Woolf pitch in on set construction, promotion and more.
Woolf, the program’s musical director, said she and her son composed two songs for "Bratty Brother in Outer Space" in advance of the play’s debut eight years ago.
"For me it’s a super special, emotional play," Woolf said. "There was this summer before my son left for college and we composed together."
Woolf said the productions are also about community bonding.
"In the audience you’ll see all ages laughing. The humor is for everyone." Woolf added parents and kids get really excited about having a homegrown play.
Park Dale Players receives a small chunk of funding from suggested donations for tickets, with most funding coming from tuition for programming. Tuition is $360 per kid for the two-week camp and performances, and the after-school program is $260.
The district gets 15 percent of programing tuition, in exchange for the theater group using district buildings.
Woolf said the kids are very enthusiastic about the plays — and it shows.
"We’ve had kids tell their parents they don’t want to go on a vacation during break so they can be in a play," Woolf said.