STONINGTON — Gavin Prendergast knows exactly when to say "God bless us, everyone."
"Right after my dad ... I mean Maddie, says 'Merry Christmas my dears,' Prendergast, an 8½-year-old West Broad Street student, said Tuesday afternoon as he stood near the stage inside the Stonington Community Center. He was wearing a woolen cap on his head and a scarf around his neck
Prendergast is playing the role of Tiny Tim this weekend for two performances of "Mr. Scrooge Finds Christmas," the inaugural production of the COMO's Theatre Kids program. Maddie, or 11-year-old Madeline Ryan, will be playing the role of Bob Cratchit. And although it was her birthday on Tuesday, there she was, standing in front of an antique-looking door with a big green wreath and frosted windows, practicing her lines.
"Happy birthday Cratchit," called out 8-year-old Jackson Ruenzel of Pawcatuck, one of the other young actors, as Maddie fixed her scarf.
"Hi Dad," said Delilah Ballenger, who plays the role of Martha Cratchit, Bob's stage daughter.
Kate Ruenzel, 9, Jackson's sister, who plays both Mrs. Cratchit and a solicitor, stood nearby in her period costume. She's enjoying the experience of playing two roles in the COMO Christmas play. It gives her the chance to "branch out and also be who I want to be," she said.
"It's fun to see theater coming back," said Beth Ann Stewart, the center's executive director, as she watched the cast of 10 children gather on stage. "The COMO has had a longstanding connection to community theater and a longtime partnership with the Stonington Players, but the theater program has been sort of random. We've done a mix of things."
That is all about to change, Stewart said.
When Linda Allen, the longtime drama teacher at Stonington High School, presented a plan to revive the COMO theater program, the COMO was all in.
"I've been doing theater for 30 years," said Allen, in between giving directions to the young actors and helping them into their costumes. "Actually I've been doing it my entire life."
"I know what it does for kids," added Allen, who began acting when she was a youngster with the Pfizer Players. "It can give them so many skills and so many opportunities."
Although Allen came up with a plan to stage a Christmas play earlier this fall, she had to wait for all permissions to fall in place before going full force into the production.
"We've got a little of this and a little of that," said Allen. "The children have even learned to dance for the scene at the Fezziwig's."
Stewart said, "We're very excited." She fondly remembers when her two daughters performed in a COMO production of "Cinderella" 20 years ago. "Certain things had to happen before we could begin, like the renovation."
Stewart said the stage area has new lighting, a renovated stage and a new drop ceiling. "It's all redone," she said. "It was a much-loved space in need of rescue."
In a corner of the room, Sandy Mortan, a member of the Stonington Players, stood behind a screen, testing microphones and stage lights. Members of the theater company, which calls the COMO home, have jumped in to help with the production, as have a number of parent volunteers.
"We're going to transport you back to the 1800s," announced Allen from the stage. "We're going back to 1843."
"This is where we'll find out what works and what doesn't," added Allen, with a laugh. "Should I hear any voices? Should I hear any papers rustling?"
"No," replied the children in unison from backstage.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced Allen in the first dress rehearsal for the play, "Welcome to Mr. Scrooge Finds Christmas."
Sophia Orlowski, chains clanking from her feet, slowly lurched on stage in the role of Jacob Marley. She was followed by Audra Brickey, as Scrooge; Evelyn Mello, as the Ghost of Christmas Past; Lacy Bricky as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Lily Bellet as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Sisters Audra and Lacy Bricky also happen to be Allen's granddaughters.
"Theater gives children so many opportunities," said Allen. "I love the journey."
"What's wonderful," whispered Stewart as she watched the children rehearse, "is that the school bus drops them off here ... many of the kids never knew one another before the play and know they do."
Students come from West Broad Street School, Mystic Middle School, Pawcatuck Middle School, Deans Mill School and the Nathan Hale Magnet School, Allen said.
"It's just about a half hour long," said Stewart about the play. "Just long enough."
While the performances are free, Stewart said, donations, which go into the budding theater program, will be accepted.