Jenna Wallace as Matilda, listens as Haley Jarvis, who plays Miss Honey, sings with strength and emotion. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Jenna Wallace as Matilda, listens as Haley Jarvis, who plays Miss Honey, sings with strength and emotion. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
The moments before dress rehearsal earlier this month for “Matilda” at Imagine Theatre in suburban Southeast Portland might have surprised that proverbial fly on the wall.

“First of all, Lord, thank you for letting us be here telling such an important story. Please help us keep our energy high,” said Sarah Rose, choreographer, launching a prayer. Many of the 30 young actors took their turn adding thanks and entreaties to God.

“Lord, thank you for this cast and crew … .”

“Lord, help us be confident. I hope that this play goes really smoothly.”

“Lord, this isn’t about us, it’s about your glory.”

Then the actors launched the performance, singing with verve and enduring or inflicting mystery and trauma until it all became clear by the play’s end.

The young performers are part of Imagine Theatre, formed as a non-profit in August 2020, when Journey Theater, a Jesus-centered theater-arts program closed its Oregon locations because of COVID-19. Journey Theater still operates in Vancouver, Washington.

The founders of Imagine — many of them parents and staff who had been associated with Journey — avidly continued the ministry. While many of the students this year are new, others have been with Journey for years.

The play’s director is Kristin Van Sickle, whose son, Emery, becomes Agatha Trunchbull. Kristin teaches at Northwest Academy and has been a vocal coach, voice teacher, piano teacher, and theater director for more than a decade.

At Imagine Theatre she brings her faith to the table. “This season we’ve been talking a lot about love,” she said.

Imagine Theatre, it becomes evident, is about far more than blocking and staying in character.

“It’s not just about theater,” agreed Cali Thoman, 13, of the classes and performances.

Cali, a member of St. Henry Parish in Gresham, said the solid friend group she’s made through the theater has been important. “And it’s helped me with confidence and social skills.”

Cali also employs comedic timing for her roles, said Jenna Wallace, 15, the actor who plays the lead role of Matilda.

Cali’s mother, Rose Thoman, board president, said she was grateful for the theater providing a safe place where children and teens could be involved.

“It’s been wonderful to help build an organization that believes in the love of Jesus and wants to celebrate that through storytelling and community building,” she said. “God has been good to us.”

Jenna had not auditioned to play the lead role (who is a genius 5-year-old in the original book by Roald Dahl), but rather Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s neglectful, beauty-obsessed mother.

“I was shocked when they told me I’d be Matilda,” said the petite Sandy High School sophomore.

She’s all Matilda on stage; she sings and performs the character without a moment of disbelief.

Alec Martinez, co-executive director of the theater, also talks about the connection between storytelling and faith. “I’ve always been a person of faith and have seen those strong ties,” he said. “The Bible tells such strong stories about life and morality. I remember stories from preschool — faith is a great teaching tool.”

The theater’s leaders all sign a statement of faith. Martinez talks frequently about Christianity, but the theater is open to children of all faiths, as well as those from families that don’t practice a religion.

“There are families who have been hurt by the leadership of their church,” Martinez said, adding that in those cases the theater can evangelize, possibly leading a family back into a relationship with God.

Martinez notes that the production company doesn’t shy away from hard topics — which are present in “Matilda.” “Our faith gives us a way to redeem those hurts,” he said.

The villain of “Matilda” is Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress and the embodiment of adult disregard for children. “The problem with children these days is their parents seem to like them. They think they are funny, cute, delightful little miracles,” she pronounces with disgust, declaring that the truth is far different: Children “will always be revolting!”

Like Broadway and London productions, Imagine Theatre cast a male actor to play Trunchbull — and Emery Van Sickle’s performance, complete with hairy legs and swishing plaid skirt, would be difficult to top.

The entire cast, in fact, is impressive and professional — perhaps it’s a good idea to pray before and after all classes and rehearsals.

The theater’s classes in dance, improv and accents begin Jan. 3. The next production, slated for spring 2022, is “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

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