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From the Stage to the Real World: Student Blossoms at Theatre at the J


Sometimes a gift can be so much more than just a present for a special occasion. That’s what Nechoma Miriam Stern received for a Bat Mitzvah gift this past year – something more than what she thought.

Last year, Nechoma’s best friend gifted her the 2022 Fall session of Theatre at the J for her Bat Mitzvah. Theatre at the J is a new children’s program at the Mayerson JCC that encourages children ages 5-7 and 8-14 to learn more about and engage in the performing arts. The seasonal program features classes on theatre, acting, character development, and ensemble building, which culminates with performances at the end of the 5-month-long session for the community to enjoy.

Nechoma wasn’t quite sure how her experience would go, but she decided to overcome her hesitations and commit to the classes and rehearsals.

Her mom, Tova Stern, described her daughter as “very shy” and nervous about performing on stage and saying her lines. Because of Theatre at the J, says Tova, Nechoma is growing and making new friends, and has found her voice.

“In school, they acted out scenes from history or other events,” Tova said. “Before, Nechoma would be nervous, but now she is active in it and acts out all of her parts.”

Nechoma participated in Theatre at the J’s first big production in December 2022, titled Dorothy Meets Alice, Or, The Wizard of Wonderland, which follows a boy procrastinating on writing a paper and dreaming up an encounter between characters from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

Nechoma was cast as the guard for the Queen of Hearts and provided the ominous voice of the Jabberwock.

When Nechoma first started in the program, she thought her role would be off-stage. Things changed when she was given time to build her confidence.

Theatre at the J director Eliana Rantz works on their characters and overall speech and movements. Rantz says it not only helps with vocal and physical warmups, but it reiterates the importance of giving the kids a place to explore and be themselves.

“We do something where we create this imaginary energy ball that everyone puts anything negative into or anything that might distract them,” Rantz said. “Once we build this ‘orb,’ we throw it away! It helps us focus on our craft, be in the moment and foster a safe space for the kids.”

During Nechoma’s experience, she fell in love with her part. Nechoma would practice her lines at recess, and she watched The Wizard of Oz with her parents to get more of an understanding of the play. Rantz also asked the students to delve into their characters and write about them, which only encouraged Nechoma more. Tova was happy to see that her daughter could overcome her stage fright in a safe environment.

Nearing opening night, Nechoma told her mom, “I think I will be okay saying my part.”

That session had such an impact on Nechoma that her family signed her up for the 2023 Spring session.

“She just flourished,” Tova said. “She was very, very thrilled to be a part of the play and she really came out of her shell. So, we said, ‘okay, we’ll do it again!’”

Rantz also noticed Nechoma’s growth from her first class to rehearsals and the play itself.

“She would kind of stand to the side and be more of an observer,” Rantz said. “But over time, I could see her have more of a presence and her once quiet voice was louder and stronger. She started to take risks, have fun, and really get out of her comfort zone.”

Tova believes Theatre at the J helped her daughter. Because her daughter had the time to grow, and a teacher willing to listen and wait until she was ready to do her part, her confidence grew.

“[Eliana] didn’t put pressure on Nechoma,” Tova said. “You want the child to know they can do it and then want to do it again. The parents know they can do it, the teacher knows they can do it, but the real magic is when the child knows they can do it.”

Nechoma joins the cast of Aladdin as Razoul, head of the guards, and the voice for the Cave of Wonders. The show will premiere in May 2023 and tickets can be purchased on the Mayerson JCC website.

While Nechoma’s journey began as a gift of a theater session, she was given something even greater: her voice.

Nechoma Stern stars as the Red Queen’s guard for the Theatre at the J production of Dorothy Meets Alice, Or, The Wizard of Wonderland. (Back row, left)
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