The final curtain falls for the much-loved 11th Street Kids Theatre this week

Erin Perkins
By Erin Perkins
November 26th, 2012

It’s been 20 years since Jean Pinto and Liz Mason put on their first children’s play in the backyard of their home on 11th Street in Grand Forks.

Since then, hundreds of local kids have experienced the magic of live theatre and the confidence it can bring to them through the 11th Street Kids Theatre.

But like all good things, the theatre program is coming to an end. Pinto and Mason are retiring with one last hurrah this week – a production of Shrek that will hit the stage at Grand Forks Secondary School (GFSS) on Friday, November 30.

“We thought we’d just retire,” said Pinto, now 70. “But we thought we’d do one more (play) instead of just stopping.”

Although Pinto had worked in children’s theatre before, she never saw herself starting up her own. But then one summer she held theatre games in the backyard of her home for her children and their friends. That soon blossomed into a backyard play and then from there acting classes in the local schools.

It wasn’t until she saw her two daughters going through a one week theatre camp with the Missoula Children’s Theatre from Montana that she thought she could do this too. The Missoula Children’s Theatre comes in for one week. At the end of that week of intense practicing and learning, they put on a production.

Pinto was impressed with the production quality. She used that week as an inspiration and the 11th Street Kids Theatre was born.

For $50 a month a child would come to a practice once a week, have a private acting lesson with Pinto and be in a stage production about two to three months after the first practice.  Later, she also included the Suitcase Theatre for teens. They performed with only the props and costumes that could fit inside one suitcase.

“It was a great experience,” said Pinto, who in 20 years put on 37 productions and influenced hundreds of Boundary children.

I’ve talked with children who did my theatre program and now as adults they tell me it helped them with their confidence and when they had to do public speaking, they would go to that theatre place in their minds.

11th Street Kids Theatre the start of a profession for one past participant

Anya Soroka, a Grand Forks graduate who is now an actress and member of the Boundary and District Arts Council, spent several years with the 11th Street Kids Theatre while growing up.  

“There was no other theatre thing to do at the time,” recalls Soroka, who was involved with the group for at least three years. “It exposed me to the life of theatre, so I was able to get to know it … I think it will leave a hole (when the theatre program shuts down) and kids need it. I think it is a great outlet for self-expression … It was an experience that helped form who I am today – thank you Jean (Pinto) and Liz (Mason).”

I really liked that Jean (Pinto) tried to make it as professional as possible. She really wanted us to do the best we could. She pushed us, but never made us do anything we didn’t feel strongly against doing.

The 28 year-old went on from her first experiences in theatre to graduate from the Victoria Motion Picture School and then to Moscow, Russia, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in acting.

Her most memorable 11th Street Kids Theatre production was CATS.

“Cats made a big impression on me, for sure. I think CATS is an adult show, so I was able to relate to it on a human level,” said Soroka.

It’s all about the stories

“The theatre is a wonderful way of telling stories and I love stories,” said Pinto. “It brings stories to life in the best possible way … There’s something about live people telling a story that touches you in the right place.”

When asked what her favorite theatre production was, she laughs and says “none”.

“It was always the next one we were going to do – I’d really get excited about that one.”

Although, she admits, she loved doing an adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun.

While Pinto prepared the kids for the stage, Mason has always been the one out there with them on the day of the production with her musical talent.

“Liz plays everything by ear, nothing is written down,” said Pinto; adding Mason “keeps the stage together” by supporting the young actors with line prompts and intuitive music.

Pinto admits she’ll be a bit sad to see the curtain fall on her final production – “my own goal is not to cry at the end”, she says.

Every production for the 11th Street Theatre has been done on the Grand Forks Secondary School Auditorium stage. School District 51 allows the group to use the stage for rehearsals for free. Without that extra help, the productions would not be possible, said Pinto.

Children need to perform in the same space they rehearse … If we hadn’t had the space from the school district, we couldn’t have grown without it.

In exchange for the free rehearsal space, the 11th Street Theatre shows their plays off to the students of school district 51 first before making the public debut.

Shrek, the last production for the 11th Street Kids Theatre, will be held at the GFSS Auditorium on Friday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is by donation. Shrek will feature the talents of about 30 local kids between six and 15 years-old.