GREENFIELD — Ask any local theater geek, young or old, and they’ll tell you — Chris Schaefer is a force to be reckoned with, and an undeniable delight.
The 4-foot-11¾ dynamo has made a huge impact on the local theater scene.
For the past quarter century, the Greenfield woman has been developing young actors through a children’s acting troupe called KidsPlay.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of when it all began with a dream for sharing the love of theater with local youth.
One of her many proteges, Brynn Elliott, said Schaefer made an indelible mark on her decision to study musical theater in college and pursue professional acting.
“Chris taught me everything I know about acting. She gave me all of the fundamentals and then some,” said Elliott, a senior at Greenfield-Central High School, where she was recently cast as the lead in the school’s spring musical, “Cinderella.” She also played the lead role of Elle Woods in last year’s production of “Legally Blonde.”
Elliott acted in 15 KidsPlay shows under Schaefer’s direction when she was a kid and is now planning audition tapes for some of the best performing arts schools in the country.
She credits Schaefer for instilling in her a lifetime love of acting.
“Chris is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met, and I can thank her for my love of the theater. I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to describe how appreciative and lucky I was to have her for a director,” she said.
A dream & determination
Schaefer had just given birth to her second child, Ben, when she launched KidsPlay in 1997.
“Ben has never known a mom who didn’t go to rehearsals on Tuesday and Thursday nights,” she said.
At the time, Schaefer was a part of a former acting troupe called the Old National Road Players, so she floated the idea of starting a kids acting troupe to her fellow actors.
They said she had their support if she could find a place for kids to perform, so Schaefer visited local churches to see who might be willing to provide a stage.
One Greenfield church agreed, and Schaefer was soon producing her first KidsPlay production, a 17-minute show called “A Rhyme in Time Saves Nine.”
She has since produced 45 KidsPlay productions over the past 25 years, coaching roughly 300 to 400 kids in all.
“I have about an 85 percent return rate, and I’m now getting second-generation kids,” she said with a grin.
Parents of KidsPlay actors — past and present — say Schaefer works a type of magic with budding young actors, who typically come to her with zero acting experience.
Twice a year, the acting troupe opens auditions for children in third through eighth grade, bringing them together in the Memorial Building basement that Schaefer lovingly refers to as “the dungeon.”
Some first-timers don’t know what to think of the petite, high-energy woman who quickly takes command of the room.
Dennis Cole, who has acted and directed alongside Schaefer over the years, said her frenetic energy is part of her charm, which helps her connect with actors of all ages.
“I call her the little crazy lady, but she’s more like the pied piper that people want to follow,” he said.
Cole said all four of his own children benefited from Schaefer’s guidance and directions through KidsPlay.
“My four children have four different, distinct personalities, and she met them all right where they were. She taught them and gave them a confidence that I may not otherwise have been able to instill,” he said. “She was the most wonderful influence on them, and I am forever indebted to her for that.”
Excited to be back
Dressed in her signature red KidsPlay hoodie with the word “director” stitched on the front, Schaefer buzzed about the makeshift theater room in the basement of the Memorial Building in Greenfield on Wednesday afternoon, preparing for the first day of rehearsals after an excruciatingly long two-year break due to COVID.
“It’s exciting to be back,” said Schaefer, her eyes sparkling behind bright red round glasses, with her brown curly hair pulled back in a headband, a red sneaker earring hanging from one ear.
KidsPlay was three weeks away from its next performance when the world shut down in March 2020, she recalled.
“The sets were here. The costumes were here. The props were sitting where kids had left them. Everyone just left one day and never came back,” she said.
To keep her young actors connected through COVID, Schaefer set about creating a short series of plays to be recorded and performed online, called “Puzzle Piece Theater.”
“The kids created costumes and sets for themselves and filmed their parts at home, and I pieced them all together,” she said.
Even when acting or directing virtually online, friends say Schaefer radiates a unique charm that lights up any room.
“I would include myself as one of her big fans,” said Amy Studabaker, a local actor and longtime friend, who is serving as Schaefer’s assistant director for the upcoming KidsPlay production, “Take Ten,” which opens in April.
The two worked together for a time at Mt. Vernon High School, when Schaefer was the drama director and Studabaker was the choir director at the school.
They collaborated on a couple of shows and have since worked together through KidsPlay and its adult-theater counterpart, CrazyLake Acting Company, which Schaefer helped create in 2008.
“I’ve gotten to see Chris in all sorts of different facets through her different productions, and I can tell you that she is just such a good person. I think she just charms everybody that she meets,” said Studabaker, who lives in Greenfield.
Schaefer brings an extraordinary level of talent and fun to any production she touches, whether she’s acting or directing, she said.
“She’s just loads of fun. She always makes the experience not only a positive learning experience, but also just a really fun place to be.”
Cole would have to agree.
“Chris is the reason why the local high schools have had so many actors,” said the Greenfield man, who serves as technical director for Greenfield-Central High School’s theater department.
“Seeing them from the high school theater perspective, these kids know how to improvise and how to project without having to have microphones. If something goes wrong, they’re not flustered. They know how to move forward,” he said.
When the microphones cut out during Greenfield-Central’s production of “Legally Blonde” last year, “Brynn simply adapted and raised her volume and spoke clearly enough that, at one point, the director and I couldn’t tell if the mic had come back on or not,” said Cole.
Studabaker also thought it was easy to spot the past KidsPlay performers when she directed choir at Mt. Vernon High School.
“Even in their first years of acting in the high school, they were leaps and bounds ahead of other kids because they had been working with Chris,” she said. “They had the comedic timing, the delivery, the stage presence, and I think that they would very easily credit this to her.”
Cole said Schaefer expertly instills a sense of confidence in young actors that spills out beyond the stage.
“These are the kids who look forward to giving a speech in high school. While everyone else is scared to death of public speaking, these kids are confident,” he said.
Schaefer said one of her proudest moments came when KidsPlay actors were invited to put on a short performance for Hancock County Community Foundation donors.
When it came time for questions from the guests afterwards, the kids happily chimed in to interact with the adults.
“The kids were so eloquent. I was blown away by how fearlessly and thoughtfully they answered their questions,” Schaefer recalled. “It’s moments like this that really shows you what acting can do.”
As fate would have it
Schaefer first got hooked on acting as a senior at Bluffton High School, where she got a part in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Her acting debut might have never taken place if it weren’t for a childhood medical issue.
Schaefer was born with a congenital hip problem that put her in a full body cast in fourth grade, which forced her to repeat the grade the following year.
“My last year of high school, they built an auditorium and started a drama department,” Schaefer recalled. “If I hadn’t been forced to repeat a grade, I would have missed out on experiencing high school theater,” she said.
Studabaker can’t imagine not having Schaefer as part of the Hancock County theater community.
“It takes about one practice, one interaction, to see that Chris is just genuinely who she is. It just wouldn’t be the same without her direction and her passion,” she said.
KidsPlay, a local acting company for children in third through eighth grades, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The local nonprofit is hosting its annual Arts & Rummage Sale from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow — Saturday, Feb. 26 — at the Hancock County Fairgrounds, at 620 N. Apple St. in Greenfield.
A wide variety of items will be for sale, including antiques, books, jewelry, toys and games, clothing, and candles, as well as electronics, furniture and home decor. Food will also be for sale, and karaoke will take place throughout the day.
To learn more about the sale or the organization, email [email protected] or visit the KidsPlay page on Facebook.