Could a children’s theater blossom in Blythewood?

A children’s performance, produced by the Columbia Children’s Theater in collaboration with Freeway Music. | Contributed

BLYTHEWOOD – The owner of a music school in Blythewood offered a proposal at a recent meeting of the Blythewood Town Council: a local children’s theatre to be created in partnership with the nonprofit Columbia Children’s Theatre and with help from the town of Blythewood.

“We’ve been working with Columbia Children’s Theatre over the last several years, and there’s a big need for theatre out here in Blythewood,” says Don Russo, who owns and operates Freeway Music, located across from Blythewood Town Hall.

“We started a little theatre program here at Freeway, which has been fun, and then Columbia Children’s Theatre has come alongside us to help make it more organized and professional and help us grow it, and they are interested in having a satellite location out here, so we – Freeway Music – we’re trying to facilitate that and link arms with the Town.”

One possible theatre location, he says, is the gym of the current Bethel-Hanberry Elementary School, which has a stage. When the new elementary school is built, he reasons, the gym – which officials plan to leave standing and repurpose – could serve as a home for the theatre.

Russo says Columbia Children’s Theatre, which is moving from downtown to West Columbia, has ties to both Blythewood and the school.

In fact, he says, one of its founders, Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson, put on its first production when he was teaching theatre at Bethel-Hanberry years ago, with the help of a grant from the South Carolina Arts Commission.

In the 17 years since its founding in 2005, Columbia Children’s Theatre has grown to include a variety of programs, from its youth theatre program to classes and summer camps to kid-friendly productions put on by professional actors.

Russo says a current partnership with Richland Two Schools is enabling all first graders in the district the opportunity to attend a play.

“Here’s this teacher [Stevenson] who’s passionate about theatre, who brought it to B-HE, and now he wants to bring it back to us and start this program out in this area that sorely needs it,” Russo says. “I think it’s a win-win.”

Meanwhile, Russo says, Freeway Music has been growing its own youth theatre program for more than five years. Its current production, Annie Junior, is being performed with the help of Blythewood Presbyterian Church, which is allowing the music school to use its sanctuary.

“It’s been a steady group,” he says of participation in Freeway’s youth theatre program.

“We did School of Rock with Columbia Children’s Theatre, and we had a very big crowd, and we had live musicians – so, I had Freeway Music students play in the pit band. It was kid actors, kid pit band – super cool – so that’s kind of the vision. I would love to see our students here putting their musical talents to work alongside this theatre.”

Between the two of them, Russo says, his music school and Columbia Children’s Theatre have everything they need to operate a children’s theatre in Blythewood: the teachers, the programming, the costumes and materials.

What they lack is a facility and the funding to make it accessible to everyone.

Russo asked council for the use of a facility and a $30,000 annual grant from the Town’s hospitality tax (H-tax), which is generally earmarked for tourism-boosting nonprofits. He says he plans to submit the grant proposal in accordance with the established H-tax application schedule.

Russo says arts and culture – especially things like music and theatre – are a great tourism draw for any town. And a youth theatre program is also enriching for the town’s residents, especially its young people.

With the Town government’s help, he says, we could host after-school classes and summer theatre camps in addition to youth theatre productions and professional theatre shows geared toward children and families.

“The gym, if it’s repurposed, could be used for the theatre. It could also be used for concerts and other productions,” he says. “It could be a great asset, much like the little community theatre in Winnsboro is for them.”

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