For this week’s #ShopFranklin Spotlight, I met with Susie Cristiano, the owner/director of Drama Kids of Metro West!
With a degree in theater and fifteen years’ experience teaching, Susie was the perfect fit for Drama Kids when she came across the job posting. “I clicked on it and it was everything I’ve always wanted to do,” Susie says. That was five years ago, and Drama Kids of Metro West has been going strong ever since. Since Drama Kids is an international franchise (known as the Helen O’Grady Drama System outside the United States), Susie is guaranteed a protected territory, but the rest of the business is her own. Susie has found that “scheduling-wise, having my own space works out the best,” so her home base is the Drama Kids studio in Franklin where she teaches almost every day. Other towns aren’t left out, though; Susie works with several MetroWest towns and teachers to run Drama Kids classes there, and she makes sure to visit those classes on a regular basis “to make sure everybody’s having fun!”
Unlike other local theater programs, which are more traditionally based on specific productions, Susie describes the Drama Kids program as “drama classes for personal growth.” Susie’s hour-long classes provide an opportunity for her students to take part in five or six different activities per class, including improvisation development, speech and movement skills, large and small group work, scene and character development, and more. Perhaps most importantly, Drama Kids classes provide the students with opportunities to “develop new friendships and create bonds that feel like family.” Because the Drama Kids program is mainly improv-based, with few scripted or structured activities like memorizing lines, it works well for students at all levels. “There really isn’t a typical student,” says Susie. “We have shy kids, we have outgoing kids, anybody can do Drama Kids.” However, Susie has found that Drama Kids’ supportive, “safe space” environment is particularly good at helping more timid students become comfortable speaking and performing in front of others. “It’s amazing how many personalities I’ve seen change over the last five years,” Susie says. As a former “painfully shy” kid herself, Susie often “jokes with the kids – ‘I get nervous too! I have to stand up here and talk to your parents!’ They’re like ‘Oh, Miss Susie, you’ll be fine!’”
Although Drama Kids isn’t production-focused, the students do get a chance to put on an end-of-year performance to show their friends and families what they’ve been learning all year. The performance doesn’t involve “big grandiose shows” or musical theater; “I do NOT sing!” Susie laughs. Instead, each age group performs a 15 to 20-minute play, written by Drama Kids’ founder Helen O’Grady. The plays are scripted, but still stay true to Drama Kids’ improvisational nature. According to Susie, “nobody is the star of the show,” and the plays are written so that the students have the “freedom to develop their characters the way they want to.” If a particular student wants a smaller part, for example, some of his or her lines can be easily redistributed to other characters, and casting is done by students’ preference and not by traditional auditions. This year’s show was a smashing success; the youngest group, kindergarten to second grade, put on a play entitled “Pirates Beware!” and the third and fourth graders performed “Mystery Under the Big Top.” The oldest students, middle through high school, pulled off a 1920s-style melodrama called “The Triumph of Trevor Truelove.”
With plays and activities that can grow and develop with the kids, it’s no surprise that Drama Kids has long-term, devoted students. This year, Susie gave away two five-year trophies to students who’ve been with her since the beginning of her business. Although it’s more difficult for her middle and high school students to keep up with Drama Kids and their own schools’ theater programs, a few of them have made it work. Some of Susie’s students take Drama Kids classes in the fall, perform in their school plays in the winter, and then come back to Drama Kids in the spring for the big end-of-year performance. Once the school year ends, Drama Kids runs summer camps, and Susie also has the freedom to create new classes whenever the demand is there.
A California native, Susie settled in Franklin in 2007 because its small, tight-knit community felt like the town where she grew up. “When I first moved here and found Franklin, I was like ‘I have to live here because it reminds me of home,’” Susie says. Franklin’s growth over the years hasn’t taken away its small-town feeling for Susie, and she’s especially drawn to its large and diverse arts community which provides so many opportunities for kids; “it’s not just a sports town.” With Drama Kids around, it’s definitely going to stay that way.