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All-of-us Express Children's Theatre: Curtain Up on Lansing's Youth

Sure, as an up-to-date person about town, you’re familiar with of the richness of the theatre culture present in the Lansing area. But have you heard about a 23 year old organization that works year-round to help raise the leaders of tomorrow through a truly community theatre experience?  Children, regardless of ‘age, color, creed, gender identity, disability, height, membership in any labor organization, national origin, parental status, political identification, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or weight’, are welcomed with open and supportive arms at All-of-us Express Children’s Theatre. Read on to learn more about the remarkable things happening both on and off the stage.
Our trend here at Capital Gains is usually to feature the adult movers and shakers in the diverse Lansing community. Luckily for Lansing, there are folks who are dedicated to developing the sights of those following in our footsteps and are actively cultivating the next generation of movers and shakers. The staff and community at All-of-us Express Children’s Theatre (AECT) is a moving example of such an organization; they are transforming some of the most vulnerable children in the area and equipping them with the tools to become the leaders of tomorrow. Those future leaders live by the following AECT watchwords: mentoring, acceptance, responsibility, and cooperation.
All-of-us Express Children’s Theatre (AECT) has been treading the boards since 1989 when founder Evelyn Weymouth decided to transform a freelance gig into an organized 501 (c)(3). Weymouth’s mantra was “theater for children by children.” That mantra has developed into a unique cast-crew rotation system and a Guild Program. Essentially, the rotation system ensures that youth spend as much time on stage as they do offstage. The Guild Program literally puts the show in the youth’s hands; it’s a structured and graduated program of varying levels of participation: cast to make-up to director and everything in between. AECT remains unique this youth arts programming Lansing area, if not the state.
These programs are designed with specific goals in mind. Miranda Hartmann, Artistic Director of AECT says, “Youth learn life skills such as teamwork, project planning, time management, communication and leadership as well as gaining self-confidence and a sense of who they are.”
AECT has become a melting pot of personalities and backgrounds thanks to the diversity of families that live in Lansing. Children from low-income families, children with disabilities, shy or reserved children, socially or developmentally challenged children, you name it, are welcomed with open arms at AECT. It is often these children who not only benefit the most from the experience, but also shine the brightest as a result.
“Our program is an equalizer,” explains board member Missy Foran. “The rotation system ensures that we don’t have two classes of participants. Local children from all walks of life create and learn side by side to achieve common goals, and develop real friendships along the way. No one pays attention to where you go to school or where you live; it is common to hear kids call our program a home away from home.”
Hartmann describes a boy who started with All-of-us Express at six years old. He’d been diagnosed with having an Autism-spectrum disorder and experienced speech and language delays, which also impacted his social development. Maintaining a positive peer-group was a challenge for his family. Within one year of participation with AECT, his speech and language delays had all but been shed, he has consistently made the honor roll, and most recently topped his class last year in reading and math testing.
“In addition to his academic growth,” explains Hartmann, “he has also grown socially. He now, rather than playing on his own most of the time, interacts well with his peers as well as children younger and older. He communicates regularly and often with the adult role models in his life, and he has built a small network of close friends.”
Hartmann adds, “This young man is my son. I am not bragging about him here but about the wonderful effect that AECT has had on him. If there were no other reason for me to be involved with this amazing organization, everything it has done for him would be more than enough! And, he is only one of many, many examples of youth touched in such a positive way by AECT.”
In addition to the incentives offered while actively in the program, AECT sees a great deal of alumnus returning, wanting to give back to the program that gave them so much.
Scott Sorrell, who now serves as a director and instructor, reflects on his experience: “I grew up at the theatre, and to be honest, I was a very strange kid. As I went through different shows the friends I made and the experiences I had shaped me into the person I am today. It helped me learn that I was unique and there was a place for that.”
Some of those who can’t return pass it forward or carry on the experience in other ways. Director and instructor Rick Dethlefsen shares two such examples.
“There have been quite a few kids who have come into their own as a result of AECT. One young lady was somewhat shy and quiet and I got to watch her grow into quite the actress. She has gone on to have roles in television shows and starred in at least one Lifetime movie and now has a website dedicated to helping other kids with advice. Another alumni has gone on to be a stage manager with Cirque du Soleil. While AECT certainly can’t take all of the credit, it certainly started the ball rolling. Yet, there are so many others who, while they may not have continued in theater, have gone on to other endeavors better equipped to work as a team and accept others for what they can be rather than any stereotypical label that may have been assigned.”
AECT has called the Hannah Community Center in East Lansing home for the past three years, and they are enjoying strengthened programming and expansion as a result. Partnerships and relationships with various organizations in the area and across the state have helped to keep the program available and accessible to all youth, both as participants and patrons.
“Scholarship support is available for required fees, so financial circumstances are never a barrier to participation,” says Foran.
“AECT also serves youth through our Send-A-Child Program which provides free tickets to programs such as The Boys & Girls Club and Ele’s Place, making it possible for youth who may not otherwise be able to attend to come to a show. Attending a theatrical performance can be such an enriching experience for youth that we feel it is important to create as many opportunities as possible for them to do so,” says Hartmann.
To parents considering enrolling their child in the program, Hartmann says, “AECT provides a physically and emotionally safe environment for youth to learn and thrive. We encourage self-exploration as well as social interaction within a structured atmosphere to advance personal growth. Character development exercises and group participation are both used to engage students at their own developmental level while working within a group situation.”
Lansing would be lucky to have more parents take advantage of the unique programming All-of-us Express has to offer. What’s better than ensuring a vibrant future for our leaders of tomorrow while supporting the amazing cultural opportunities our area has to offer?

Veronica Gracia-Wing is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


The All-Of_us Express production of Robin Hood

Photos © Dave Trumpie

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