Sophomore current senior Livvy Bryan nervously took the stage for her first Artbarn Community Theater Pin up. Ten years later, she sat on that same stage with other members of the Artbarn community, reminiscing about their time on the program and all the memories they created.
“That was my favorite moment, being able to take a second and look at everything that happened and be really proud of what we did,” Bryan said.
Countless other students like Bryan have had memorable and formative experiences through Artbarn, a non-profit performing arts program founded more than two decades ago that provides students in grades K-8 with the opportunity to develop their acting skills with a group of other passionate actors. Many current high school students credit Artbarn with providing the necessary confidence and other social skills that guided them through their elementary and middle school years.
Executive Director Matthew Kossack joined Artbarn 15 years ago as Artistic Director. He comes back year after year because the program inspires students.
“To get on stage and tell a story live for an audience and to see young actors discover the love of it and the joy it brings is really rewarding.” said Kossak. “My favorite moments are when an actor discovers he is capable of more than he thought, which is an incredible achievement for him.”
Junior Olivia Sheehan began her career at Artbarn in 4th grade, performing in traveling shows and later in larger scale productions. She now uses the skills she learned from Artbarn in her daily life, including the importance of valuing community and working as a team.
“I was really bad at learning my lines. It was really, really hard for me, but I still did it. I think it speaks to the Artbarn community and I feel so connected to all those people and that I don’t want to let anyone down because I knew if I didn’t learn my lines it would have a negative impact on others,” Sheehan said.
Like Sheehan, Bryan said she learned valuable skills through the program.
“Even if you don’t continue to perform theatrically, the skills you learn at Artbarn are really useful throughout your life. It gives you a place to feel comfortable standing in front of people and talking. And improv has been really helpful in the real world,” Bryan said. “I was a very shy kid, and I’m still relatively shy, but Artbarn gave me a lot of skills and made me feel more confident in my ability to stand up and talk to people.”
Through his current job as an intern, helping behind the scenes at shows, Bryan watches the growth of the cast of Artbarn 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 actress in Artbarn.
“Middle school can be a difficult time in a student’s life. You see kids coming in, and maybe they’re really shy, maybe they don’t know anyone on the program yet, but they come in and they really find each other, corny as that sounds,” said Brian. “The Artbarn community welcomes everyone and creates this environment where everyone can grow and be completely confident in what they are doing.”
Sheehan said she appreciates the connections she made at Artbarn.
“It gave me a very tight-knit group of friends. It was also kind of the first time I met people from other schools who were older than me; the group was in grades four through six. And it’s crazy because some of those people I met in fourth or fifth grade on 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 cast and staff. According to Kossack, while they couldn’t resume in-person rehearsals, they fostered the same kind of supportive community on Zoom.
“We had a core group of kids who had been doing it since they were 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 seen through this program is unique and something he couldn’t find elsewhere.
“I’ve known students since they were in first grade. Watching them grow, find confidence, find leadership and find courage is why we do this,” Kossack said. “We love musical theatre. We like to tell stories. We love to put on plays, but the real goal is to help young people discover these things.