TNB Young Company celebrates 50 years of bringing ‘play and creativity into schools’

A poster for Sidewalk Chalk. (Submitted: TNB)

A cheering crowd, the sound of applause and children leaping from their seats in excitement. This isn’t a kid-friendly rock concert, it’s a school performance by the Theatre New Brunswick Young Company. 

“The teachers could hardly keep the kids sitting,” said Sharisse LeBrun, director of the Young Company, when reflecting on a performance from last year, “but it wasn’t because they were bored or antsy. It was because they were so excited about what was happening on stage.” 

Early this month, the TNB Young Company began its 2024 tour of New Brunswick schools. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the theatre company that performs educational and entertaining shows to students across New Brunswick annually. The goal is to not only to introduce children to live theatre but help them better understand themselves and others. 

“Some of them get to learn about experiences that are very different from theirs…and then some of them get to see their own experiences put on stage and they feel seen and validated.” 

One of last year’s shows was a bilingual play called S.T.O.P., which focused on a young boy and his peers figuring out how to communicate despite their language barrier. After the show, a teacher reached out to the company: her class was working harder to include the one student in class who had immigrated to Canada and had experienced similar barriers to the character in the play. 

This year, the TNB Young Company is touring one show for elementary schools and another for middle and high schools. The show for younger audiences, Sidewalk Chalk, deals with friendship and parental separation and follows two friends as they take a magical journey through their chalk drawings. 

Beneath Springhill is the show for older students, and tells the true story of how Maurice Riddick, an African Canadian known as “the singing miner,” survived nine days underground during the Springhill mining disaster of 1958. It also deals with the subject of racial tensions within the Nova Scotia town. 

After a recent performance of Sidewalk Chalk, a young boy ran up and hugged an actor because he was also dealing with his parent’s separation. 

“Ideally, we give them some tools to engage with the things that they’re dealing with,” LeBrun said. 

In addition to helping children feel seen, the Young Company brings theatre to children in rural communities who may not have access to it otherwise. They provide workshops to teach students about the process of creating and putting on shows like the one they just saw.  

“A big part of it is letting kids get a little taste for theatre… so that they go ‘oh, I can do this. This isn’t some big scary thing… I can do this in my own backyard.’” 

As the director of TNB’s Theatre School, LeBrun sees the benefits of theatre. It fosters things like resiliency, confidence, and creativity. 

“I often see kids come in who are shy, who don’t feel brave enough to express themselves or be themselves,” she said. “Here they start to realize… the things that make [them] unique… are the things that make [them] special.” 

Even if children aren’t interested in pursuing theatre further, a big part of what the Young Company does is encourage play. That includes letting student audiences know they’re allowed to laugh, be loud, or cheer if they want to.  

“School isn’t fun and playful for every kid,” she said. “It’s really a gift to get to bring play and creativity into schools and just let kids laugh and be silly and be kids.”