“In Blue Skies, Out Grey Skies”

By Tom Moore

Argus McEnerney’s sights are set on New York University. Admittedly, the 9-year-old Salish Coast Elementary student has time before pursing a college major in theatre but he is wasting no time, honing his passion for acting with Key City Public Theater (KCPT).

Argus, and his enthusiasm for the theater, comes in no small part from the educational outreach that is an important part of KCPT’s mission. Collaborating with teachers and students in 1st-12th grade throughout Jefferson County, their goal is to help develop real world skills through play and performance. Skills like reading comprehension, self- and social awareness. The goal is for each student to learn “ensemble awareness”, says Resident Ensemble Artist Maggie Jo Bulkley.

“Providing kids with a creative space where they can express themselves, and where there is a safety net so they can take risks and find their courage,” she said. “This helps them to “not only be better artists, but better community members.”

Having attended KCPT summer camps and workshops since 2018, Argus is picking up on that groove. “I can be my true self and just be crazy and stuff,” he says of his experience in theatre class.” He also admits to learning some key social skills. “Once during a performance, I got a line wrong, but no one interrupted me. And that taught me not to interrupt. I’d been struggling with that.”

Another skill learned through acting is how to find a place of calm in the face of anxiety. Before going onstage Argus takes four deep breaths and says to himself, “In blue skies, out grey skies.” Argus’ use of his stress-reducing, refocusing mantra has applications beyond the stage, especially these days.

Amidst of the gloom of COVID-19, when theater operations were forced to close down, Denise Winter, Executive Artistic Director at KCPT, took a few deep breaths herself before moving forward on two critical initiatives: renovating the theater and launching a pilot education program to reach children throughout Jefferson County.

“At a time when we felt so powerless, I saw these two opportunities that could be implemented immediately and pay off in the future,” she said.

KCPT applied to the Jefferson Community Foundation (JCF) COVID Response & Recovery Fund. While the bulk of the relief fund went to health and human service organizations, Denise believed that JCF knew the importance of the arts community to the vibrancy of Jefferson County at large. Her belief was well founded. JCF awarded KCPT two grants – $17,000 for renovations to improve ventilation and building systems, and $15,000 to support their educational outreach programs.

The impact cannot be understated, Denise said.

Taking a cue from her student actors, she looked at the $32,000 not just for what it would do, but also as a ‘prompt’ for a bit of grant making improvisation, or… what it might become. With an application to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust pending, Denise leveraged the support from local partners – like JCF – to submit a request for a matching grant of $176,500 to complete the comprehensive remodel of the theater. The result, as with any successful improvisation, was for the Murdock Trust to “say yes.”

While times remain uncertain, Denise is optimistic about KCPT re-emerging stronger once performances begin again. They have raised more than $400,000 this year and, in the process, have formed and re-newed relationships with local organizations and schools like Salish Coast Elementary’s OPEPO Program and Kiwanis. She is particularly happy with how JCF support has given KCPT the resources to introduce theater arts to more children (like Argus) throughout Jefferson County.

The highlight of the education grant was two youth workshops put on this summer in partnership with the Quilcene Historical Society on the grounds of historic Worthington Park. For two, two-day sessions students engaged with Maggie Jo and Artistic Associate and Education Director Brendan Chambers.

“We let them play; encourage them to be open and free and not to judge or be judged,” Brendan said. “For example, a game we play is to have them do a movement that represents their name. Sometimes just getting them to say their name is a feat in itself – an act of courage really.”

Maggie Jo added, that the goal is for the students to become, “one brain – a place where they have chosen to be together to learn, to have each other’s back, and to bring each other up when they’re feeling down. To help the students recognize that you can build a community, anywhere, even in a two-day class.”

Denise and KCPT’s partners understand the theater has a positive ripple effect in the community. She knows, “If someone’s coming into town for a show more often than not they’re going out to dinner beforehand, maybe doing some shopping downtown and then staying overnight and making a weekend out of it. That’s where art ripples out to storefronts and restaurants and even to your buskers on the street.”

It also ripples out to children like Argus and all those in and out of classrooms who want to be part of an ensemble – to be in a place where everyone has a part to play.