Actors perform in a recent production of Gemini’s version of ‘The Little Prince’.
By Alice Crow
Since Gemini Theater Company’s move to McKees Rocks in 2016, staff members like Executive Director Jill Jeffrey have been working to spread the word about the company, especially to its new neighbors who may be unaware of the nonprofit.
Founded by Creative Director Lani Cataldi and Marketing and Development Director Dennis Palko in 1996, Gemini is an interactive children’s theater that offers performances, camps and classes. Through scholarships, discounts and payment plans, Gemini’s staff is looking to connect with residents of the Sto-Rox community.
Jeffrey began at Gemini in 2004, when the company was located in The Factory on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh. In 2015, a member of the Gemini board of directors, Mark Snyder, who lives in McKees Rocks, connected with director Cindy Haines of Focus on Renewal. The Sto-Rox non-profit is dedicated to providing support to the 13,000 residents of Sto-Rox through programs for all ages aimed toward the development of healthy minds, bodies and spirits.
By the end of the year, Gemini was relocated to its new home at the Ryan Arts Center on Chartiers Avenue in McKees Rocks.
Despite being marketed as a children’s theater, there are opportunities available at Gemini for children of all ages. While many of the interactive shows are geared toward young children, older kids and teens can still be a part of the Gemini experience.
“They can audition for shows and they can work on shows with lights or sound,” Jeffrey said. Internships, volunteer work and donations are also options to those wanting to get involved.
“We’re here primarily to help educate and make it an inclusive environment for kids through high school, as well as for families who might feel that what’s being presented by other places didn’t speak to them,” she explained.
This effort to be inclusive is one of the core values of the nonprofit. This is often reflected in the types of productions they create. The company takes fairytales or classic stories and places a ‘Gemini-twist’ on these shows to subvert common tropes and teach larger moral lessons.
A recent show produced by Gemini was a version of “The Little Prince” written by Jeffrey and her intern Ross Ringold who has autism. In an interview with Jeffrey to promote the project, Ringold explained that he was drawn to the story in a Gemini acting class and focused the show on the importance of coping mechanisms when facing upsetting emotions.
“[Coping skills] are not just important for those with special needs but they’re important for everyone to learn about and that’s what my message is,” Ringold said.
Ringold is one of many who has been a part of the Gemini community for over a decade. Stephanie Cryor first auditioned for the Gemini show “Journey Back to Oz” around 2004 and has been involved with the theater company in some capacity ever since. She now teaches acting classes for Gemini.
“I was cast as the tin man. I had been doing theater for a long time before that, but Gemini was so very different. It blew my world right open,” Cryor said.
Diversity is another core principle of the theater company’s mission.
“There isn’t one type of person who has to play certain roles or a type of person that can work on shows, this is for everyone,” Jeffrey said. “I know when we first moved into this neighborhood, some of the kids I met were just immediately like, ‘Well, I couldn’t be Alice in Wonderland because I’m not a white blonde girl’ and I was like, ‘So what?’ Alice can be a banana walking around. It can go any way you want it to.”
As a Black, bi-racial person, Cryor describes her experience with Gemini as always being a safe space and accessible.
“Gemini has gotten even better over the years, which encourages young kids of color to be part of the theater scene, whereas when I was younger, I was definitely one of very few,” Cryor said. “Now I think it has to do with families not knowing that they can access these programs.”
Despite the move being a couple years ago, Jeffrey still sees a combination of barriers that has prevented community participation to grow to its full potential. She believes this includes misconceptions about the company, lack of awareness, and stigma surrounding the performing arts.
“I would say that the higher percentage [of participants] is still coming from outside the community and I think part of it is still not everyone realizing that we’re here or that we have this service,” Jeffrey said.
“The theater arts, and the arts in general, can sometimes still have a stigma that it's a privileged activity to do and we don't want anyone to ever feel like, ‘I can't afford that, so I can't do that.’”
To combat this obstacle, Gemini offers free scholarships to Sto-Rox community members, funded by donors. Sometimes this makes programs completely free to local youth. Alternatively, for those who can pay some amount for acting classes and camps, discounts and payment plans are available during registration on the Gemini website.
“For kids and families that live in the community we try to offer free scholarships whenever we have the funding or at least do very inexpensive tuition for our camps,” Jeffrey explained.
Upcoming Gemini events include fall shows and classes, as well as the Fairytale Festival fundraiser scheduled for Sept. 18 from 3 to 6:30 p.m. at the Riverview Park Activities Center.
The Festival will celebrate 25 years of the Gemini Theater Company and will include crafting, food, dancing, raffles, carnival games, a petting zoo and other events. Children are encouraged to attend dressed in their favorite royal or character attire. Tickets are available at geminitheater.org.