Years ago, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools teacher Marie Steele applied for a grant that would provide funding for transportation and tickets for her students to attend plays in Charlotte. On these adventures, Steele always brought along her 2-year-old daughter, Karen.
“That’s where I got the bug,” Karen Steele said of her trips to the theater at such a young age.
Since 2002, Karen Steele has been the resident teaching artist at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, sharing space with ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center. She travels around the community teaching students of all ages in recreation centers, daycare and afterschool programs, and halfway houses. Her job is to teach introductory theater classes.
“There (are) so many children who haven’t had the exposure,” she said. “I had a mom who made sure I had exposure to the arts, and that helped me academically.”
Classes are free and last 45 to 60 minutes. Topics vary, depending on the group. For students at Turning Point Academy, a CMS school for students with behavioral issues, she’s asked the students to make handprints to connect how actions have repercussions. She also works with students and adults with special needs, showing them how to make a story come to life.
Preschool students at places such as Refugee Support Services and the Theatre Club at Tuckaseegee Park and Recreation Center may be timid at first, but they’re sad to see Steele leave at the end of the class. She opens with a song, then reads a book and leads the children in an arts and crafts project based on the book.
Steele’s known for bringing her step stool, or the podium, as she calls it. The children take turns standing on it, introducing themselves and answering a simple question. They always receive a snack and their artwork to take home to mom and dad.
“Those kids have gone through the whole day of structure, structure, structure,” Steele said. “And what I want them to do is learn while having fun. So, I’ll bring fun theater games where a lot of times they don’t even realize that they’re learning something, or learning how to speak in public or learning how to do some of the theater activities that I want them to do.”
Theater activities for kids
The Theatre Club at Tuckaseegee Park and Recreation Center started four years ago.
Fifteen to 20 students under age 5 from all over the city attend Steele’s weekly workshop. It’s part of the Arts & Science Council’s Culture Blocks, and parents can register their child for free. The club members practice public speaking, reading out loud and how to project their voice and speak clearly.
“I think she’s making a really big difference in the community,” said Tahara Epps, recreation specialist with Tuckaseegee Park and Recreation Center. “I think she’s a very animated teacher. We just love her as a whole.”
Since late 2017, Steele’s also been teaching a class for the Refugee Support Services’ Love and Learn Preschool Program. For many of the children, English is not their native language, yet Steele engages everyone’s attention, said Anne Banks, Education Programs Coordinator at Refugee Support Services.
“Karen encourages the children to speak individually in front of their peers, practice patience and communicate during storytime,” Banks said. “Karen’s enthusiasm and engaging style of teaching has introduced a fun, creative dimension of learning to the refugee children.”
The highlight for many of Steele’s students is attending a play at Children’s Theatre — for some, a brand-new experience. “I love being in contact with young folks when the light bulb comes on and they want to learn,” Steele said, “or they get the idea and they understand what it is that I’m bringing and they’re excited about it.”
More arts coverage
You can find all our arts season preview stories and calendars in one place: charlotteobserver.com/topics/charlotte-arts-guide.
Want to get more arts stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the free “Inside Charlotte Arts” newsletter at charlotteobserver.com/newsletters
You can also join our Facebook group, “Inside Charlotte Arts,” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/