More than a dozen voices rise in harmony, filling the chamber of Cornerstone Church on Monday afternoon. They’re not singing a religious hymn, but rather a number from “Annie” — the latest production by the Homeschool Theater Club.
The iconic play tells the story of Annie, an orphan who is chosen to live with New York City business tycoon, Oliver Warbucks, but longs to meet her real parents, prompting a search that yields a slew of frauds.
The tale of little orphan Annie has appealed to generations, but holds a special place in the hearts of the Homeschool Club cast, which boasts a number of adoptees in their ranks. They’re hoping, in addition to a rousing good show, that they can also raise awareness for adoption and foster care in the Valley. An estimated 3,400 children are in foster care in Montana and more than 428,000 are in need of permanent homes nationwide.
Homeschool parent Tamara Horton has adopted seven children and said that participating in theater has helped them address emotional issues.
“This play is unique because it’s about orphans, so having a family full of orphans, it’s brought up a lot of things, in a good way, for them,” Horton said. “Theater just provides a [way] to work on some of those issues, and acceptance and good friends. My kids tend to not feel worthy enough to have good friends … so theater club really supports them.”
The club, founded about 13 years ago, provides an avenue for homeschooled children in the Flathead Valley to study the dramatic arts and expand their social circles. They practice three to four times a week for up to four months prior to their first on-stage performance, so it’s a big time commitment for performers, crew and their families. But for Horton, and other parents, it’s a worthwhile one.
“You have kids that, some of them, they’re hardly going to talk to anybody,” parent and club secretary Martha Artyomenko said, “and then you see them now, and they’re confident adults that are going out in the world. You know that they’re going to be alright.”
Some of the homeschool theater alumni have gone on to study acting at Flathead Valley Community College, while others have found careers in theater companies across the country and one student is currently back east auditioning for Broadway, Artyomenko said.
“That’s been our goal, not only exposing kids to the arts that wouldn’t be exposed to it normally, but also making them successful people and adults,” she explained.
Artyomenko has four children, ranging in age from 13 to 20. She said that parents choose to homeschool their kids for a variety of reasons: overcrowding in public schools, allergies or learning disabilities are among the most common.
Horton chose the homeschool route to better accommodate the needs of her adoptive children and her son Evan, who is deaf.
“Some of my trauma kids just couldn’t handle all the pressures of school and dealing with all their past traumas from being in foster care and whatever brought them to adoption,” she said.
Homeschool theater also provided Evan with opportunities he didn’t have in the public school setting.
“In second grade he was supposed to be in play in school and they pulled him out at the last minute,” Horton said.
To make him feel welcome, the club came up with a specific part for Evan, incorporating a signing character into “Annie.”
While homeschooling allows parents to customize their children’s education, they don’t have access to the programs and offerings of area public schools. The club fundraises and collects donations at their annual shows to cover facility rental, which costs more than $5,000, microphones and other supplies. The parents also contribute to the cause and often scour their own closets for props and costumes.
“As you can see, we’ve got people sewing,” Artyomenko said, gesturing to a handful of moms threading costumes together in the church’s prayer room.
The group puts on one big show a year, but also hopes to host a summer theater camp that will be open to all students — homeschooled or not.
Simeon Myers, 13, has been involved in the club for five years and said it helped him develop public speaking skills and to become “more of an extrovert instead of being closed in and scared of interacting with people.”
“I had a few friends from basketball and church and then in joining this, I’ve gained a lot of close friends,” Myers added.
Twenty-year-old Paul Artyomenko is currently taking the club as a one-credit course at FVCC and has participated in past productions like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Robin Hood”and “Mary Poppins.” Theater helped him break out of his shell, expand his circle of friends and inspired him to take up voice lessons.
“It’s really to try to teach people and show them God through us. Be an example. That’s what this play is about — it’s about being an example to other people,” he said. “Our goal is to lift each other up, not to be the star, but to push each other to be the stars.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.