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Huge cast featured in holiday production

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FARMINGTON — The way Paul Arthur Stewart sees it, one of the secrets to successfully mounting a stage production featuring a cast of children is to essentially ignore the youth of the actors.

"We like to treat the kids like adults and treat them as professionally as possible," said Stewart, who is co-directing the Heather McGaughey Youth Theatre production of "Elf Jr., the Musical" that opens here this week. "We believe they can do it, and they sure as heck do it."

Stewart's co-director is his girlfriend, Melissa Cheffers, although Stewart said the latter is mostly overseeing the production while he fills such roles as production manager, set designer and sound designer. This will be the third children's production they have worked on together, and Stewart said they have developed a routine that allows them to work together efficiently.

But they had their hands full with this production, which drew an unprecedented number of participants. The cast features 54 children — far more than the normal 25 to 30 who turn out to take part in the annual Heather McGaughey Youth Theatre summer productions at Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater that Stewart and Cheffers have worked on.

"We've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of smart kids, and I think word gets out that we put on a good show," Stewart said, explaining the increased interest.

Rehearsals for "Elf Jr., the Musical" started Nov. 9. Stewart said he and Cheffers started the process by bringing the cast members and their families into the Farmington Civic Center for a screening of the film the play is based on just to acquaint everyone with the material. He said the stage production closely mirrors the film version, differing only through the addition of approximately eight songs.

Stewart said working with such young actors — who range in age from 7 to 16 — is an intensive process, as most of them bring little to no experience to the stage.

"For a lot of them, it's because their parents sign them up just to see if this is something they want to do for the rest of their life," he said, describing the difference between working with kids and adults. "You literally have to tell them, 'Take three steps, then look out.' You have to be very specific with the kids.

"But they surprise you at the end," he continued, explaining that the first time Cheffers led a Heather McGaughey Youth Theatre production, they weren't expecting much from their cast, based on what they had seen in rehearsals. That changed when the curtain went up on opening night and the kids came through with flying colors.

"Me and Melissa looked at each other and said, 'Where was this during rehearsal?'" he said. "They bring so much energy. We know we're going to be fine come show night."

Seeing all those young actors respond to that challenge is what makes working with children worth it for Stewart. He hopes they get the acting bug just like he did, but he wants them to learn some life lessons, too.

"I want them to get the feel of theater and … being in a group together to put on something great," he said.

To get his young charges in the proper frame of mind before each rehearsal, Stewart said he has started a ritual of asking them to come prepared with a brief story about how they did something nice for someone that day.

"It's all about encouraging them to be kind to somebody," he said. "That's something I've started recently. It can be little stuff like, 'I saved a seat for my friend at lunch' or 'I gave somebody a high five.' I just want them to understand there are a lot of little things you can do for somebody to make somebody happy."

"Elf, the Musical, Jr." will be presented at 7 p.m. Dec. 19-21 at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St. Tickets are $5 and $7. Call 505-599-1148.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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