At Catonsville Children's Theatre, young actors create their own characters

Barb and Nick Gough, seated in center, are surrounded by the young cast members of The Catonsville Children's Theatre's production of "Grease is the Word!" Assistant director and choreographer Joanna Chilcoat Fellows, bottom, was also present during a rehearsal at Christian Temple in on Oct. 26.

For Catonsville Children's Theatre founder and executive director, Nick Gough, and his wife, Barbara, enabling children to act is the goal, not memorizing lines or rote repetition of a script.

Nick said the young actors are considered "partners" and encouraged to take ownership in each production. While the group does perform some scripted shows, most are what the Goughs call original productions in which the young actors create and develop their own characters.


"It's a process-oriented, child-driven philosophy that encourages confidence and self esteem and erases fear," Nick said.

On Nov. 9, the group will perform "Grease is the Word," an original production. Without a script, the actors rely on their own knowledge of the show as well as direction from Nick Gough, who will set a scene, then let the children improv their lines.


"That's what makes us unique," Barbara said. "Nick helps bring them out."

For 13-year-old Kat Van Dyke, the theater group and its programs have been a growing and engaging experience since she joined Catonsville Children's Theatre five years ago.

"It's not like other theater," said Kat, who will play the part of Rizzo in the upcoming show, "Grease." "Not just the stars get to say all the lines. … And, I like being able to act with people I like. It's not my main interest, but it's something I was always interested in doing."

Kat's mother, Donna Van Dyke, concurred. "My daughter has really grown and blossomed. We were looking for activities for her. Kat saw her friends doing it. She tried it, and after the first day was so excited."

'More creative, less scripted'

A graduate of London's Royal Academy, Nick holds a master's degree in education and teaches fifth grade at Talbott Springs Elementary School in Howard County. He formerly worked at Pumpkin Theatre, a children's drama group founded as part of the drama department of University of Notre Dame, Maryland, in Baltimore.

But he wanted to approach children's theater in a different way, one that was "more creative and less scripted," as Barbara said. "His vision was to build a theater for kids of all ages, from all background, and possessing a variety of acting skills and experiences."

So in 2002, Nick left Pumpkin Theatre and, working with Barbara, a nursing educator, started up a theater company at the Barn on the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.


"We originally let kids create their own show. It brings them out of their shells and instills creativity," said Barbara, the theater group's manager.

Now located in the Christian Temple, in Catonsville, with an office in downtown Catonsville, the company has expanded its programs to include "main stage" productions such as "Godspell" where the theater group purchases the rights to the script.

The core of Catonsville Children's Theatre is its drama programs. Saturdays on the Hill is the Gough's original program, begun during their days at the Barn. Designed to run for 12 weeks, children from fourth grade through middle school help create unique theatrical productions.

The Saturday Insanity, an eight-week course, enables younger children to experience the performing arts. And Organized Chaos, a showcase for middle and high school students, has presented shows such as "It's All Greek to Me" and "The True Story of Thanksgiving."

The drama group currently has 20 children in each of the two Saturday programs, and more children on a waiting list. The Goughs want to keep the groups at that size.

"We could continue to grow if we had more time and staff," Barbara said. "This started as a hobby. Now we have to decide do we want to make it bigger or leave it as it is?


"The ideal would be if someone would buy a theater for us. We want to expand and offer it to adults. We also want to offer it to 4- and 5-year-olds, and we would like to do more main stage productions."

The group also takes its performances on the road, with the company appearing at venues such as St. Agnes Hospital, UMBC, Catonsville's July Fourth Parade, Barnes & Noble bookstore, and an annual presentation at the Santa House in downtown Catonsville on the Saturday following Thanksgiving.

Although Catonsville Children's Theatre has a choreographer and two assistant directors, the company rarely puts on full productions. "Nick is not big on scripts unless it's a main stage production," Barbara said. "Kids get caught up in the script and forget to act. We let the kids create their own dialogue."

"There is no fear of forgetting lines," Nick said. "We've never had a kid get stage fright. They can stand in front of 150 people and look and behave with confidence. It's the power of self-confidence."

"This is for the child who maybe isn't the athlete," said Barbara. "Our kids are very creative and self-motivated. … We're unique in the philosophy we've found."

The drama group's productions also often defy conventions.


"The red-headed girl with the freckles does not necessarily get the role of 'Annie,'" Barbara said. "In the production of 'Godspell,' the role of Jesus was played by a girl and in 'Peter Pan,' we had two Peter Pans."

For Catonsville Middle School student Ryan Ritzes, 13, the theater group is a place where he can go to be himself. He first encountered the Goughs when he was in elementary school. "It was my mom who gave me the idea. I fell in love with it immediately. It's a lot of fun, and being on stage, you're not on the stage: You're on a street, in a bar, or in the bad guy's room … I am very comfortable being in front of people."

Along with at least 10 shows at Catonsville Children's Theatre, Ryan has performed in three musicals at school and intends to pursue acting professionally.

The upcoming production of "Grease is the Word" uses participants from the Saturday on the Hill and Organized Chaos groups. Choreographer Joanna Chilcoat-Fellows has developed four dance numbers for the 22 performers, and Nick is working with them to develop the dialog.

The Goughs are also looking to collaborate again with the Christian Temple to stage a future production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

"CCT is something local, a hidden secret," Barbara said. "We live here and love Catonsville. We cater to the youth, and that helps build a better community in the long run."


"What the Goughs do gives the children confidence," said Donna Van Dyke. "It's magic to see."

Catonsville Children's Theatre will perform "Grease is the Word," on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. at Christian Temple Theatre, 5820 Edmondson Ave., in Catonsville. Cost is $2.

For information on the performance or Catonsville Children's Theatre, call 410-744-4365 or email