Few sectors of American life were affected more by the pandemic lockdowns than the theatre.
But after restarting in-person classes with pandemic safety measures in December, North Bay Theatrics, a youth theatre company out of Cotati, is not only back in business, but expanding to Sebastopol.
Starting in May, Creative Director Ashley Kimball along with her business partner Vanessa Frost will be offering youth programming for children between the ages of five and 18 at the Sebastopol Cultural Community Center.
“We’ve definitely had our ups and downs but we’re still chugging along, baby,” Kimball said.
In 2013, Kimball, a Sonoma State University grad and former Miss Sonoma County, started North Bay Theatrics out of Marin County, before moving to the Cotati, where a favorable deal with the city allows them to use the recreation center for weekly rehearsals.
“We really found our home in the City of Cotati at their recreation buildings. We worked out a partnership and that partnership has allowed the company to grow. I’m really wanting to establish the company here in the county,” Kimball said.
For seven years, Kimball, a self-described “theatre gypsy,” has etched out rehearsal space in a number of theaters and rec rooms across Marin and Sonoma Counties, switching to an outdoor space when she reopened classes late last year.
The reception Kimball has received since reopening underlies the deprivation kids have suffered through lack of socialization over the past year. At first, her students took them a few minutes to even start talking. That is, until they started moving with some dance exercises.
“The relief I watched over all of them was amazing. Especially for my teenagers, and those were the ones I was most worried about during all of this,” Kimball said.
Later that month, her students put on a live holiday production over Zoom.
“That little class got people so excited that we were able to open up and bring back some instructors for spring,” Kimball said.
One of her students’ mothers has a connection with the Sebastopol Cultural Community Center, helping to facilitate starting a class aimed at West County families now that the county is in Orange Tier.
The company has actually increased in size since December compared to its pre-Covid numbers. In the early months of 2020, 55 students were enrolled in Kimball’s programs; this spring, the number of students on the roster reached 93.
Kimball has been able to bring back her two other teachers and two assistants to offer the once weekly classes: one hour for the youngest children, two to three hours for the middle group and a slightly larger commitment from the oldest students. This May, the Cotati groups will be performing “Aladdin,” “Alice in Wonderland” and a rendition of “The Greatest Showman,” respectively.
The return to the theatre is important to those for whom acting is a way of life, not just a hobby or a profession. Kimball said many involved in the performative arts—herself included—have fallen prey to depression during the long months of Covid lockdowns, out of which, with wary optimism, we’ve only just emerged.
Kimball doesn’t just hand out roles, but she believes in approaching children’s musical theatre with an approach more focused on growth and development of the children enrolled, rather than putting on seamless performances.
“I would rather my production look a little less polished if it meant I could have every kid on stage doing that dance number, even if they can’t all get it. We’ve had so many of these kids grow that way,” Kimball said.
Kimball recalled a student in her five-to-seven-year-old class a few years back who cried out of nervousness before her first audition. Kimball sat the young girl down and gave her the space to talk about her fear of performing. Afterwards, she went on stage and sang her heart out.
Now older, she has built on that confidence, finding success on and off the stage. She even helps younger children who face similar issues of stage fright.
North Bay Theatrics is inclusive of students of all colors, races, gender identifications and financial backgrounds. Creative solutions can be worked out for students whose parents can’t afford the classes and scholarships are sometimes offered.
“I have never, ever turned someone away because of their finances. I want this to available to anyone who wants to perform. That is our goal as a company, and that is the standard we want to set for other businesses in the community,” Kimball said.
The focus on development of the students over all else is Kimball’s real goal.
“We create a space where a kid can come in and feel safe and valued and included. It seems like a simple thing, but many people don’t have a space like that. This is a place where they can feel like it’s okay to take healthy risks,” Kimball said.