It was The Bard himself who penned (quilled?): “All the world’s a stage.” And never has ol’ Shakespeare’s sing-songy iambic pentameter been more relevant than when applied to children. Of course, children view the world as a stage. They are growing and learning and developing as the lead character in their own story, all while navigating how to “perform” — for teachers, for parents, for peers, for coaches.
All which makes it the opportune time to introduce theater.
Scholastic.com offers: “Learning from an early age how to cope with performance jitters gives kids a leg up in those big life moments.” Not only that, the article continues, but in addition to enhanced self-esteem, confidence and cognitive quick-thinking, playing the role of someone else teaches kids empathy.
Parents.com concurs: “Kids exposed to the theater can better identify with multiple perspectives, thanks to how actors take on roles and a director explains a character’s perspective, intention and goal.” The article goes on to add that kids who attend live theater learn patience and concentration. “Contrary to television, which changes images every three to four seconds, theater requires concentration for a sustained period.” Quite the opposite from today’s thirst for instant gratification.
For Joelle Shenk, creator of JoELoe Productions, it’s that a-ha moment in a child’s eyes when they feel themselves well up with confidence. “I love the elementary age of ‘I’m really nervous, but I can do this’ and seeing the light bulb go off and gaining the confidence at that young age,” she says. “It’s about enabling them with positive energy. I meet them where they are, but I also give them a challenge. 99% of the time the child rises well above the occasion and surprises themselves. It’s a beautiful moment to watch.”
Along with her sisters, Shenk grew up in Hagerstown, Md., and was homeschooled. Her mother was big believer in learning to work with and perform for all age groups. After high school graduation she joined a professional drama company and traveled for nearly four years to 43 states and five countries. She became trained in improv and sketch drama specifically, learning that she wanted to continue performing and work with children.
In 2008, Shenk came to Blacksburg to stay with her sister to self-assess what should come next in her life. “I started to connect with people in the community and ended up rooting myself here,” she relates. She started volunteering, networking and teaching preschool, eventually finding herself in a swirl of things she loves.
Over the years Shenk has built what is now an established (and still growing) portfolio of live art opportunities for the area’s kiddos. She offers one-and-done theater workshops on the weekends, semester-long productions, musical theater, improv classes and private lessons for anyone interested, from age 4 to adults. She started the theater program at Christiansburg Middle School, then moved to Blacksburg Middle School to do the same.
She has taught in public schools and overseas, running two theater camps in China for several months each. For adults, she teaches interview preparation, audition preparation, public speaking, and consults on pretty much anything and everything that is asked of her. She listens to the needs of the community and if she can’t provide the solution, she brokers the relationship that can. She gets a lot of assistance from past students and cultivates a holistic show by using the strengths of those around her. For example, Virginia Tech fashion and textile students often help with wardrobe.
Shenk writes all her own material, making most performances royalty-free. “I think children give me more energy. This is theater. Yes, there are times to be still. Yes, there are times to be quiet. But then teach them the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. Teach them how to channel the energy and the loudness. Letting their voices be heard at the right time will serve them well.”
In 2024, Shenk plans to add a children’s voice acting class and a storytelling class, to teach the art of sketch writing. Personally, she would like to see some of her original work get published, and she would like to grow her own voice acting work. She’s voiced animated works, podcasts, commercials and even video games.
“Providing quality is a big thing to me. That it’s not just thrown on stage. My main goal is to provide children with quality technique and training.” She candidly rolls her eyes at the borderline-cliché productions that cast someone as “Cow #1” who just gets to “moo” once or twice. “I try to give them an opportunity that will stretch them, so they feel like they’ve gained something.”
Shenk concludes: “I have been very blessed to have opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to do what I love, and I am continuing to do what I love. I want to be that person that people can reach out to.”
And she may or may not have taught someone who stars in the Avatar movies. (But, shhhhh … if that gets out, there’s is no telling what could come next for her.)
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Photos courtesy of JoELoe Productions
Nancy S. Moseley is a writer from Blacksburg who enrolled her youngest son in one of JoELoe’s weekend workshops last month. Fingers-crossed he stars in movies one day, thusly cementing her retirement plan.