A set of stairs tucked in the far corner of the white brick Commissary Mall building east of downtown leads to the Casper Children’s Theatre.
There, teachers Jordan Nelson and Dominque Simmons sit at a table wolfing down pizza between the morning and afternoon acting classes.
“Don’t step on our asteroid belt,” Nelson warned.
Spread out on the hardwood floor are upside-down paper plates textured with gray-green shaving cream. Thanks to Nelson and Simmons’ many exhortations for their students to keep the art on their trays, the shaving cream debris from the spacefaring mission is mostly contained to the hardwood. That’s fine. It’s seen worse in the last decade or so that it has served as headquarters for the Casper Children’s Theatre.
The theater has long run on what Nelson jokingly called a shaving cream budget — props, sets and costumes are frequently reused.
“We have a saying here: If we can’t make it out of hot glue, tissue paper and pipe cleaners, we aren’t trying hard enough,” Nelson said. “But I can’t tissue paper the rent.”
Summer is simply about survival for the theater. The school year brings regular contract work from the Natrona County School District, and grants flow in the fall. But summer is when students have time to join improvisational theater and play-writing camps.
On a whim, Nelson turned to a fundraising website to garner support.
In less than a week, private donors have supplied just over $4,000 of the $5,000 the theater needs to make it until fall, Nelson said.
“A lot of parents didn’t know … they stepped up, their businesses stepped up, a lot of the community has stepped up,” Nelson said. “It’s been overwhelming.”
The nonprofit theater serves about 200 students, ages 4 to 17, annually, Nelson said. The classes offer the chance to sing, dance, act and create.
Nearby, a group of about 10 girls are demonstrating more important skills. With their two instructors occupied in another room teaching the boys choreography for an ‘N Sync parody, one girl took the lead. Where needed, she pointed to cue the next solo, or mouthed the next line as a gentle reminder.
In between practice, the girls conferred and came up with a part for one of the new students who didn’t have a part yet.
An ambassador jogged down the hall, past a dizzying array of scene props, including a colorful, 8-foot-tall tissue-paper tree. She OK’d the executive decision with Nelson, then jogged back to her team.
Learning to blend talent and hard work, independence and teamwork are the lessons that will last, Nelson said.
Thanks to community support, it looks likely those lessons will continue to be taught out of the Commissary Mall for a while longer.