The Portsmouth Area Arts Council

It’s a busy evening backstage at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts in Portsmouth, Ohio; tomorrow is opening day of the Portsmouth Area Arts Council’s (PAAC) production of Willy Wonka, Jr. Small children dressed as Oompa Loompas--their faces painted orange and wearing green wigs--scurry around as older cast members shush them, usher them here and there, and scoop them up as they cross paths with large set pieces that are pushed on and offstage (a giant white chocolate boat, for example). A teenage boy runs up to Susan Foster, the director, his hand held to his face: “I’ve got a nosebleed!” Susan speaks softly into a headset, “Mike Teavee has a nosebleed, but let’s carry on without him.” From the stage, Willy Wonka improvises: “Welcome to my factory, invisible Mike!” Everyone chuckles.

The production is an elaborate, coordinated effort; everyone’s role matters, whether you’re Willy Wonka, an Oompa Loompa, a parent volunteer, or a backstage helper running out to place a set piece before the lights go up. It’s beautiful to see everything fall into place in these final rehearsals, the children (all 100 of them, ages 6-18) full of energy and excitement for the big show they are about to unveil. But regardless of how the first show goes, these kids have forged a powerful sense of community through the discipline, collaboration, creativity, and fun of the performing arts.

“When you look at how smaller communities are going to sustain themselves, it’s not going to be...someone that comes from the outside...and saves us, it’s going to be that growth and caring that happens from within.” -Becky Lovins, Executive Director of PAAC

And for Becky Lovins, the director of PAAC, this is what it’s all about. The sole administrator of PAAC (and one of only two paid employees, along with Susan), Becky works upwards of 50 hours every week to ensure that the organization delivers its mission of integrating the arts into the lives of children in the greater Portsmouth area--all at no cost to the children. This is a vital resource for a place like Portsmouth, where economic neglect and precarity limits artistic opportunities for kids and drives away many young people. Becky mentions that from their 2012 production of Sweeney Todd, 15 of the 20 cast members, many of whom have gone off to college, now volunteer with PAAC whenever they return home. This creates a system of intergenerational support and mentorship, anchoring enthusiastic and dedicated young folks who would otherwise build their lives elsewhere.

The community recognizes the importance of PAAC’s work and actively supports it. Parents volunteer as chaperones, set builders, makeup artists, costume designers, bathroom cleaners, and chauffeurs. And as Becky puts it, “The strength of our support comes from our parents and families and then trickles up.” Local businesses provide significant financial support and in-kind services, while individual community members offer hundreds of small donations of everything from money to bottled water.

“When the kids are here, all the kids are equal.” -Becky Lovins, Executive Director of PAAC

It’s the morning of the opening performances of Willy Wonka for Portsmouth-area schoolchildren. Parent volunteers cluster around Becky Lovins, awaiting instructions. As school busses line up, and hundreds of little kids approach the front doors of the Vern Riffe Center, the volunteers ready themselves for chaos.

This year just over 1,000 children from 10 different schools and daycare centers take their seats in the theater. The excitement is palpable, filling the vast space with high-pitched laughter and chitchat. The house lights go down and the children scream with anticipation; what was once a decently rambunctious crowd now turns borderline disorderly. Yet, as the music begins, a hush falls.

A spotlight illuminates a purple-clad Willy Wonka at center stage, and from this point on the audience is deeply captivated. Every scene change initiates an eruption of applause and screams. Highlights include Charlie and his Grandpa Joe burping after ingesting a “Fizzy Lifting Drink,” the grand reveal of Wonka’s chocolate river, Violet Beauregard bursting into a blueberry, Mike Teavee being shrunk to the size of a Ken Doll, and the grand finale, when Wonka passes down his chocolate factory to a surprised and gracious Charlie.

As the cast takes its final bows and the curtain closes, the kids cheer them on one last time. It is easy to sense that they do not want the performance to end--the crowd sighs, but is still excited. As the children file out of the auditorium, they leave with a strong sense of community, because the community made this happen. Donors, volunteers, cast and crew, and audience--all came together to perform and appreciate not only Willy Wonka, Jr., but their collective talent, enthusiasm, and resilience.

Charles Birge
Zoe Enciso Edmiston