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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat Gazette/Lara Jo Hightower When Natalie Lane is not directing shows, she's helping other Arts Live directors by coaching the young actors or serving as assistant director.

Natalie Lane chatted about her job as she sat in the cheerful office of the Arts Live building on Sang Avenue in Fayetteville. When Lane clocks in to work as an educator and director at the nonprofit theater for children and youth, she's not surrounded by dreary gray walls, computers and copy machines like so many people are. The office here has two comfy couches arranged to facilitate chatting, posters of past productions hanging on the wall and tons of pictures of smiling kids. The effect is that of a happy clubhouse where artistic and fun-loving folks hang out.

In other words, perfect for Lane, who feels like she's right where she's supposed to be.

"One of the things I love about my job is, selfishly, I get the chance to be, not really Peter Pan, but at least Wendy -- because it's like, 'OK, get your coats on. Let's do this. We can all go to Neverland together,'" she said, smiling. "It keeps me young. I truly think I've always been able to talk to kids on their level. And I'm really grateful for that. Because I don't work to have that, I just have it. And I love it."

Lane left a successful career in restaurant management about five years ago -- one she said she liked, but did not love -- when she sensed there might be something more fulfilling for her waiting in the wings. She had worked for Arts Live when she was younger. As a college student, she studied theater and toured elementary schools with educational and enriching shows. She started feeling the pull to go back to that.

"I really didn't know what I was going to do," she recalled. "I called Mark [Landon Smith, ALT's executive director] -- we had remained friends through the years. The thing that I remembered in my life that I was the happiest doing was theater involving children. So I called him, and I said, 'Hey, would you want to throw a class my way?' And he said, 'Yeah, let's do it and see what happens.' It took me a little while to kind of get back on that bike and say, 'OK, do I really know what I'm doing?' But it turns out, being older, I'm so much better at it."

Lane teaches several classes each session, while directing two shows and assistant directing or serving as acting coach for about six more each season. Currently, she's serving as acting coach on the theater's next production, an adaptation of Animal Farm directed by Jules Taylor.

"It's just a fresh pair of eyes coming in, you know, and just seeing where the kids are," she said. "One of my favorite things is just kind of watching them and seeing what their personalities are like and what will speak to them. Then I'll do some one-on-one work, sometimes."

Arts Live has made a name for itself for its original adaptations and scripts -- a frugal as well as creative choice, given the cost of royalties associated with most professional plays. Executive director Mark Landon Smith said Lane "cranks great scripts out like a genie," but creating original content has been more difficult for her. Nonetheless, she directed her own adaptation of the classic Robin Hood tale this fall.

"Mark has really challenged me -- he keeps pushing me onward," she said. "I'll say, 'Oh, but I can't do that.' And he'll answer, 'Yeah, but that's what you said about this, and you did it.' With Robin Hood, I thought, 'This could be really boring,' and so my focus was: 'How can I make this fun?'"

Lane found a script about Robin Hood online in the public domain, and it was enough to give her a skeleton upon which to build a slightly skewed version of the old story that crackles with pop culture references.

Lane's success at working with theater kids might be rooted in the fact that she, herself, benefited from using theater classes and productions as a creative outlet and support system during her own adolescence.

"I would make up plays, and my brother Nathan -- he was four years younger than me -- I would bribe him with, you know, 'I'll give you my Ghostbusters soundtrack if you'll just help me perform something,'" she said, laughing. "I just wanted to perform things for our mom and dad. And then he would usually end up doing something really fun and steal the show. I would be like, 'This is NOT how we rehearsed it!'

"It helped so much with my self-esteem. I've always been, I think, someone on the outside that's like, 'Hi!', really outgoing. But at that age, I wasn't as confident as I seemed -- as I think a lot of us are at that age. So theater helped me so much."

It's a pattern she said is repeated with the youth who work with Arts Live.

"Seeing them have breakthroughs about themselves -- you know, it won't even necessarily be on stage, but just seeing them being self-conscious about one thing, or just carrying something around and seeing them starting to find the strength within themselves," she said. "There are so many kids that come to Arts Live who have not had a group of their own or many friends or just can't find their place. And so they show up really quiet, and now we can't get them to be quiet. You just see them kind of relax and realize that they're not under attack here."

Lane said that the directors and instructors at ALT are deliberate in sussing out each child's specific skill set to maximize confidence in his performance abilities. Eash student completes an audition sheet that asks him to mention any additional skills or talents he has, no matter how strange or seemingly unrelated to the show for which he's auditioning.

"When Jules [Taylor] was doing Romeo and Juliet, there was a kid that could juggle. So she ended up doing a whole street fair thing and had this kid juggle during it," Lane said. "There was another kid that could ride the unicycle, and she had him in that scene, as well."

The result is a boost of confidence that shows even the most insecure youth he has something of worth to offer. Lane has a specific story in mind when she talks about this: Two parents brought in their son, barely a teenager, who had been withdrawing from school, as well as from his family. They had tried several activities, including sports, but were having no luck in engaging their child. They enrolled him in classes at Arts Live as a last-ditch effort and were surprised -- and relieved -- when he started responding positively.

"The dad said to me, 'This has just saved our kid. He was spending all of his time alone. We were really concerned because he was starting to completely isolate himself,'" remembered Lane. "He said, 'I watch this, and I never knew how much teamwork went into theater. That was one of the main things I wanted him to learn socially. What I knew was football, I thought that's where you would learn how to be on a team, but all of that is here, too.'"

In fact, Lane pointed out, getting children involved in theater goes way beyond giving them stage experience. Kids at Arts Live learn not only teamwork, but also collaboration, critical thinking skills through text analysis and discipline through showing up on time prepared for rehearsal -- not to mention technical skills like how to run a light board or soundboard, skills that can transfer to other areas of interest and study. Theater education also can benefit academic performance, according to the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, which cites a study that showed students involved in the dramatic arts outscored nontheater students by an average of 65 points in the verbal component and 34 points in the math component of the 2005 SAT test.

Lane's next show as a director, Independence, was written by a high school student, who will also be co-directing with Lane -- just one more example of the unique experiences afforded Arts Live students. Lane is looking forward to the experience of leading this ambitious young woman through this exciting experience.

"I love being part of that," she said. "You know, where things aren't solidified in them yet, they're still malleable. And to put them in there and say, 'You have everything you need' ...

"And whether they go on to do theater or not, I really don't care. It's about how they talk to themselves, how they feel about themselves and how they talk to and treat other people. That's what we're really big on here."

And with that, Lane is off to do exactly what she's supposed to be doing right here, right now.

NWA Democrat Gazette/Lara Jo Hightower Lane, pictured here with Animal Farm director Jules Taylor, is currently coaching the actors in Taylor's show, set to open Jan. 25.

NAN Our Town on 01/11/2018

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