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Creating a safe space for kids to make connections through creative expression

Aleta Barthell, standing next to a stage performance area at The Flower Fields
Aleta Barthell, founder of Kids Act, poses for photos next to a stage performance area at the Flower Fields on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Carlsbad.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Aleta Barthell is the owner and founder of Kids Act, a San Diego youth theater program that encourages creative expression by using theater games, creating stories and characters, and performances to teach leadership skills, build confidence, and strengthen their talents

As a kid growing up in a small, rural town in Wyoming, with no television, Aleta Barthell’s imagination was often her entertainment. Once her family moved into town when she was older, she had an opportunity to play the role of a bunny in a show for elementary schools. She had big plans for developing her character, until she learned she had no lines and would be in the background.

“I certainly would have liked something like Kids Act in my life, as a child. An opportunity for my imagination to be put into action,” she says, referring to the youth theater program she founded in 2003, which encourages her students’ creative expression and gives each of them a role with special, individual meaning. “There isn’t one ‘star’ in a Kids Act show. Everyone’s role is important.”

As the owner and founder of Kids Act, and a writer, she wanted to create a place where each of her students would have an ability to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas, laying the foundation for them to become leaders with vision, she says. One of the recent ways she’s doing this is in her latest partnership with New Village Arts and their production of “Stellaluna,” the beloved children’s book by Carlsbad author Janell Cannon, exploring themes of fitting in, friendship and finding commonalities in unexpected places. The show is being performed by a cast of teens and young adults who are neurodiverse, and is scheduled to run from Aug. 19 to 22 at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad.

Barthell, 53, lives in Encinitas with her husband, Bill Ostrie, and they have a son, Jac Ostrie. She took some time to talk about her work at Kids Act, the upcoming “Stellaluna” production, and adding writing to her creative talents and expression.

Q: Kids Act has partnered with New Village Arts before, and you’re currently working together on the production of “Stellaluna.” I understand that you’ve adapted the original work for this stage version. What was your process for adapting this work?

A: When the director, Samantha Ginn, and I talked about doing the story with our neurodiverse crew, I wanted to dive in and develop a distinct character for each performer. We had a reading with the New Village Arts staff of the word-for-word adaptation I’d previously written for one of my Kids Act camps, allowing the staff to improvise the ending of the piece.

What came out in this improv was how antagonistic these two different worlds of bats and birds could be. What I wanted to discover was how these two different worlds could exist together — the birds being able to go into the world of the bats, and vice versa, and how they felt at the end. Although these different creatures may never feel “natural” in the “foreign” world, they could learn how to navigate it with help from others and then come back “home.” Many of our performers are individuals who have autism or Down syndrome and they are constantly learning how to navigate a world that doesn’t feel “natural” to them.

Q: A pandemic-related creative outlet for you has included a Humanities for All Quick Grant from California Humanities, for “SAVING STORIES: A Toolkit in the Age of COVID-19,” pairing people who are isolated in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities with local artists who wrote dramatic monologues based on their lives. The stories were shared with the public online, through New Village Arts. Can you talk a bit about your involvement in this project, and what the experience was like for you?

A: When the pandemic first hit and I learned that they were not allowing visitors in assisted and skilled nursing facilities, I thought of my mom and how much visits meant to her when she lived in these facilities. I wanted to do something, but what? Then I heard that in the first relief package out of Congress, they were earmarking money for technology (FaceTime, Zoom, etc.) for these facilities. That was when I knew that we had some way to connect individuals with their community.

I had also seen that California Humanities were offering various grants. I asked three other San Diego playwrights if they would be interested in doing a project with me that involved interviewing these isolated storytellers and writing a monologue based on those interviews. Then I asked New Village Arts to be a fiscal partner in the project. The playwrights connected to their interviewees however they could; a wonderful director in Florida worked with me; and we hired professional San Diego actors to perform the pieces via Zoom. The finished pieces were edited and put together into two series that ran virtually through New Village Arts’ virtual program in February and March.

It was absolutely amazing to meet these different people and hear their stories. During a time when everyone was feeling disconnected and many theater workers were unemployed, it allowed theater artists to use their talents to serve their community. This is a project where I felt like we truly met the moment.

What I love about Encinitas ...

I love Moonlight State Beach and Oakcrest Park, where the bunnies and bats hang out at dusk!

Q: You’re also developing a television series about a 12th century queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, for which you received a grant from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to study source material in Paris? How did this opportunity come about? And why Eleanor of Aquitaine?

A: I had visited Paris while I was working in London after college, and I wanted to go back. My French tutor encouraged me to see if there was a grant that I could get that would allow me to do that. I came across a book of poetry by a 12th century poetess, Marie de France. There was such an incredible feminine voice in this poetry and I wanted to find out what women surrounded her. I discovered that she was a part of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s “Courts of Love.”

Eleanor was a kickin’ queen of both France and England in the 12th century. She was a charismatic and fierce defender of her homeland of Aquitaine, and battled those who dared to oppose her vision for her own empire, including both of her husbands. Eleanor became the Duchess of Aquitaine at the age of 14. When she married Louis XIV of France, then Henry II of England, she created vast empires within those marriages. She saw what life could be — the richness of it — emotionally, intellectually and culturally. When she returned to her homeland of Aquitaine during a very rocky period in her marriage with Henry II, she started a cultural revolution with her “Courts of Love” that allowed women to voice how they wanted to be treated and loved. This became part of the “Code of Chivalry” that swept Europe. In this process, Eleanor also trained an impressive army of knights who ultimately fought for her against her husband, Henry II. She lived until the age of 84, ruling alongside her sons, Richard the Lionheart, then King John. It is an epic story that deserves the time and attention to tell it, which television does.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: I had an acting teacher who told us to volunteer in our communities. I took this to heart straight out of college and volunteered for the district attorney’s office in Portland. I was a rape victim advocate, and I met victims at the hospital to help them through the medical exams and interviews with the detectives. I got glimpses into worlds that I never knew existed, and it taught me humility. You never know how you are going to react when you are hit by a traumatic incident. You might think you will behave one way, but sometimes your childhood upbringing will dictate what you do and say at that moment, and it may make no sense to someone looking in from the outside.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I am incredibly self-conscious about how I sound, the sound of my voice. I received a particularly harsh review once as an actor, and the critic laid into how much they did not like the sound of my voice. I did not want to open my mouth at all after that. Once the hurt calmed down a bit, I attended a summer intensive with Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts, focusing on the Linklater vocal process to expand my vocal range. It helped, but who knows. Maybe that’s why I write now!

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Driving up (or down) the coast highway to get fish tacos and then either go see a play or a movie. Or, a walk on the beach with my family.


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