Young actors gain confidence from formative years in Artbarn Community Theater



3rd and 4th graders during a 2022 production of “There’s A Monster In My Closet.” Most of the shows performed by Artbarn’s youngest troops are original productions, put together by students and staff.

In second grade, current senior Livvy Bryan nervously walked onto the stage for her first Artbarn Community Theater show. Ten years later, she sat on that same stage with other members of the Artbarn community, reminiscing over their time in the program and all the memories they made.

“That was my favorite moment, being able to take a second and look at all the things that have happened and be really proud of what we’ve done,” Bryan said.

Countless other students like Bryan have memorable and formative experiences through Artbarn, a non-profit performing arts program founded over two decades ago that provides K-8 students the opportunity to develop their acting skills with a group of other passionate actors. Many current high schoolers credit Artbarn with the necessary confidence and other social skills that guided them through their elementary and middle school years.

Executive Director Matthew Kossack first joined Artbarn 15 years ago to be artistic director. He keeps coming back year after year because the program inspires students.

“The act of going out there on stage and telling a story live for an audience and getting to see young actors discover a love of that and the joy in that is really rewarding.” Kossack said. “My favorite moments are the ones where an actor discovers that they are capable of more than they thought they were, which is an amazing realization for them.”

Junior Olivia Sheehan first began her Artbarn career in 4th grade, performing in traveling shows and later on larger scale productions. She now uses the skills she gained from Artbarn in her everyday life, including the importance of valuing community and working as part of a team.

“I was really bad at learning my lines. It was really really hard for me, but I always did it. I think that speaks to the community at Artbarn and me feeling so connected to all these people and not wanting to let anyone down because I knew if I didn’t learn my lines, that would impact other people in a negative way,” Sheehan said.

Similarly to Sheehan, Bryan said she learned valuable skills through the program.

“Even if you don’t continue to perform in a theatrical way, the skills that you learn in Artbarn are really helpful throughout your life. It gives you a place to feel comfortable going up in front of people and speaking. And improvising has been really helpful in the real world,” Bryan said. “I was a very shy kid, and I still am relatively shy but Artbarn has given me a lot of skills, and made me feel more confident in my ability to stand up and talk to people.”

A 2021 performance of “Once Upon A Mattress.” The next Artbarn production will be “Frozen” on May 21 and 22. (CONTRIBUTED BY ALAN MCRAE)

Through her current work as an intern, helping behind-the-scenes with shows, Bryan watches the growth of Artbarn actors both musically and emotionally. Bryan said being an intern is rewarding because she experiences the same kind of emotional growth she had when she was an actor in Artbarn.

“Middle school can be a rough time in students’ lives. You see kids come in, and maybe they’re really shy, maybe they don’t know anybody in the program yet, but they come in and they really find themselves, as cheesy as it sounds,” Bryan said. “The Artbarn community takes in everybody and creates this environment where everybody can grow and completely find confidence in what they’re doing.”

Sheehan said she appreciates the relationships she formed at Artbarn.

“It gave me a super tight knit group of friends. It also was kind of the first time I was meeting people from other schools who were older than me; the group was from fourth through sixth graders. And it’s crazy because some of these people that I met in fourth or fifth grade during the show are my closest friends in high school today, Sheehan said.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Artbarn temporarily halted productions for the safety of its actors and staff. According to Kossack, while they could not resume in-person rehearsals, they fostered the same type of supportive community over Zoom.

“We had a core group of kids who had been doing it since they were really little; they kept coming back to these virtual programs and were very grateful for the experience,” Kossack said. “They couldn’t imagine a world without Artbarn and couldn’t imagine their week without Artbarn.”

Kossack said the experiences he has had and the personal growth he has watched through this program are unique and something he would be unable to find elsewhere.

“I’ve known some students since they were in first grade. Watching them grow up, find confidence, find leadership and find courage is the reason why we’re doing this,” Kossack said. “We love musical theater. We love storytelling. We love putting on plays, but the real purpose of this is to help young people discover these things.”