It’s about an hour before curtain time at The Theater Bug on a Friday evening in late September, night two of the all-youth theater company’s four-night presentation of the fantastical two-act play Still Life With Iris. In a building at the back of Inglewood’s New Life Baptist Church, nearly two dozen kids ranging from kindergarten-aged to high schoolers interact spiritedly, but peacefully, while parents contentedly converse or settle into volunteer roles, with nary a neurotic stage-mother vibe anywhere to be found.
      Tonight’s performance is set in an alternate world called Nocturno, a peculiar but happy place save for the presence of a sinister conspiracy to steal the memories of family members, rendering them virtual strangers. Conversely, the peculiar but happy community atmosphere inside is one that an actual stranger — the visitor just arriving to experience The Theater Bug for the first time — finds to be an oddly inviting one, perhaps a bit like an alternate world itself.
      Amy Rhyne, the company’s administrator, graciously greets the newcomer and finishes going over last-minute directions with a volunteer at the donation table just inside the door. Holding a full Starbucks cup in each hand, Rhyne introduces the visitor to some of the actors’ parents, such as neighborhood “Bug mom” Fleming McWilliams, an enthusiastic source of information. “This is not watered-down children’s theater, it’s a roller coaster of emotions,” McWilliams says from her volunteer post behind the snack bar. Her point is that topics of real gravity and poignancy are explored in The Theater Bug productions, and that the students involved have the skills to pull it off. “They’re real actors, these kids,” she adds with a mixture of wonder and conviction.
      Standing nearby, newish East Nashvillian Christal Rosado praises the high-quality training her two daughters have received here since the family relocated from the San Francisco Bay Area, where the girls were involved in local theater. Tonight they each play a modest part, but The Bug Way makes no distinction regarding the size of each actor’s contribution; everyone, or no one, is a star. Christopher Bosen, a professional actor who is playing a rare adult role on the Bug stage, later notes that in every production, every young actor on stage will “have a moment, a line or something, to shine in the spotlight.”
      Bosen goes on to explain that the students here range from professional actors who audition for Broadway shows to kids who may be trying theater for the very first time. Those who are newer to the stage have the advantage of learning from more experienced participants, as was the case for Bosen’s daughter Sydney. “It’s opened up her independence and her sense of self to be around kids that have self-confidence onstage,” he says. Bosen emphasizes that the key to this exchange is the environment of complete safety the program provides. “The kids become pretty fearless, and bold and brave in their choices. Because they know there’s no risk of being embarrassed.”
      Bosen is quick to attribute the good things happening at The Bug to its founder and artistic director, Cori Anne Laemmel. “She sets a professional atmosphere for the kids, and has high expectations for them, but at the same time she’s very nurturing in her environment,” he says. “Having worked with her in shows and worked with her as a director, I just think that The Bug is a natural reflection of who Cori is. It’s a really magical place that she’s created.”
      By way of example, consider the preshow ritual taking place on the stage, where the entire cast is seated in a large, ring-shaped configuration known as the love circle. Each person has an opportunity to offer affirmation, encouragement, or gratitude to others in whatever way they feel inclined. By the time Cori Anne Laemmel has moved from the love circle to the theater’s front row of seats to meet her visitor, both Starbucks cups are now in her possession — one cradled in her upper left arm as she sips from the other.
     Laemmel, a California native who began acting professionally at age 9, formerly taught acting for Metro Parks and Nashville’s Street Theatre Company, where she launched the latter’s youth program. With support from husband (and Theatre Bug technical director) Tyson, she set out in 2010 with the vision for her own acting company after realizing her role at Street Theatre was “essentially a really small branch on a big tree. And the longer I was there, the more I realized I really wanted to be the tree,” she says, laughing.
      Some would say she’s become the roots as well, establishing a reputation for the acting company through her energetic investment in her students, as well as its workshops, annual concerts, and the prolific body of plays and musicals she’s custom-written for the kids. She explains that tonight’s show is not a Bug original, as most are; rather, it’s a longtime personal favorite that licensing costs had previously made unfeasible for the nonprofit company, which debuted on the stage of Donelson’s Keeton Theatre in March 2011. Since then, The Bug has occupied three different locations near or along Gallatin Road, becoming an East Nashville fixture that’s now drawing students from surrounding counties.
      When she emerges onstage about a half-hour later for brief preshow comments, she tells the audience what she told her visitor earlier about the performance soon to commence: “This play is deep and strange and unique; it doesn’t remind me of anything I’ve ever read. And I feel that way about all these kids, too. They’re all the most unique, strange, wonderful kids, and so it made total sense that I would do this show with them.”
      Just before surrendering the stage to her student cast, she speaks an affirmation the actors hear in some form or other before every performance: “Kids, I love you. You are wonderful. You are magic. Have so much fun! And now I present … .”
      Still Life With Iris is indeed an odd duck among stage repertoire, offering scenes both heartwarming and bizarre. It’s also an anomaly in the sense that it isn’t one of the typically presented Laemmel creations that seek to elicit compassionate understanding of contemporary issues ranging from adoption and childhood cancer to learning disabilities and teen suicide. Now a defining feature of The Theater Bug, the plays initially were prompted by necessity — namely, the lack of funds to pay royalties on licensed works. It was a major plus for Laemmel that she could create roles on demand to suit her students’ growing numbers and individual strengths as well as sidestep the status quo of subpar material that Laemmel feels “talks down to really, really brilliant young actors. This was my chance to say, ‘Okay, let’s write you something that’s yours.’ ”
      Neither the writer-director nor her students initially set out to be social crusaders. “At first it was just a way of getting the kids to talk about stuff,” she says. “These are their stories, and it’s important to them. Art is an amazing communicator, and it was such a great way for them to be able to really use their art.”
      Laemmel, perhaps understating her substantial contribution to developing her students’ capacity for empathy, believes it’s basically the result of their naturally artistic sensibilities. “I think what it comes down to is that they’re interested in storytelling, and anybody who is drawn to being a storyteller by nature is going to be a little more openly accepting of somebody that’s different from them,” she says. “And these kids often can see through a lot of things because of what they see in people and their hearts, and they want to do the right thing. Really, every single show seems to have come down to the same thing, which is just to be kind, and it’s really easy to hear that from the kids.”
     November|December theeastnashvillian.com 67 Indeed, what began simply as a cost-saving measure has become a core part of The Bug’s DNA, proving to be inspirational and transformational for adult viewers. “The shows Cori writes are so powerful that audiences who come in with low expectations since ‘it’s just a kid show’ are truly amazed and able to walk away seeing the world with different eyes,”Bug mom Julie Franklin says.
      Audience members aren’t the only ones being transformed by the process. Amy Rhyne, a Bug mom as well as a staff member, affirms that daughter Abbey and her fellow students “are learning to make a difference in this world and to have empathy for others. I’m confident my child is going to be a better adult because of the years she has spent at Theater Bug.”
      Anna Williams is the mother of five Bug kids ranging from 6 to 16, three of whom are in the cast of Iris, including eldest daughter Ayla in the title role. Williams has observed that The Theater Bug participants “have been taught to honestly and respectfully look into the lives of people they may not have a place to explore otherwise. At the end of a run, Cori’s students go out in the world ready to protect, defend, befriend, honor, and respect people of all backgrounds, colors, faiths, and lifestyles,” Williams says.
      Truth be told, The Bug’s own student body is nearly as diverse as the broad cross-section of people for which it artistically advocates. In The Bug’s climate of acceptance, Laemmel’s students learn to bond with one another across social and cultural lines, and they gain a maturity that helps buffer them from typical peergroup politics. “[Laemmel] opens her heart to every kind of kid, and she just sparkles inside and out,” says 16-year-old Ayla Williams, whose six years at The Bug have included building a group of friends she says feel like family. “I say this to her all the time, and I’ll say it again: She makes growing up a lot easier.”
      Even being a grownup is easier at The Theater Bug. Working alongside young, passionate actors who follow Laemmel’s lead of expressing unconditional love was a heartening and restorative experience for veteran actor Bosen. “When she calls out to both sides of the stage and tells the kids she loves them, I’m choked up by it,” he says. “Because I think it’s true — it’s true for me as a performer, and I think it’s true for most performers, and for most people, there’s an inherent craving to hear those words. When we sat around in that love circle, we’d sit there and the kids would say it.
      “I know that in doing this show, I rediscovered my own love and joy of creating with others and being a part of something like that,” Bosen continues. “As an adult, you don’t want to leave that. Because that spirit, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in that way when you work in most professional settings. It only happens at The Theater Bug.”
      Perhaps for that very reason, Laemmel says it’s a shock to her system when she accepts the occasional professional acting gig she wedges into her schedule once a year to maintain her own professional growth. “Anytime I’m away from my kids and I’m in a setting where all of a sudden I’m just with adults again, I really feel the difference,” she says with a laugh that sounds like a sob. “It’s really hard for me. Somebody else might say, ‘Oh my God, I just couldn’t be around a bunch of kids all day,’ but for me it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re just such good human beings.’ ”
      For the many other adults who’ve found meaningful community and an uplifting, growth-producing environment for their kids, it should come as no surprise that the director prefers to be nestled snugly inside The Bug. Like them — and, for that matter, like Iris, who by show’s end regains her memories and returns to her restored family — Laemmel’s found her home in a peculiar, happy alternate world.

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