It’s not your typical theater experience at Think BIG! Theater Arts.
Some of their most engaged audience members are not sitting still or are even in their seats. Some of their most lively actors don’t have a pulse.
And some of their best direction comes from little ones who still have yet to learn to tie their shoes.
Started in 1996, Think BIG! Theater Arts is the realization of a unique triple threat:
Heather Van Velsor – actor/educational director
Shawn Thorgersen – playwright
Frank Longo – actor/puppet builder
“We are very serious about being light-hearted with children’s theater,” says Thorgersen.
Think BIG! conducts children’s musical and theater workshops. The trio write and produce original performances. They go into participating schools as teaching artists in residency, and provide professional development for school teachers. Their HAVEN chapter offers special training and coaching for adult artists.
Lastly they rent puppets and build puppets to order.
Soon, with their Patchogue location in the former vacuum store at 42 South Ocean Ave, Think BIG! will be able to produce family friendly shows right here in the heart of the village.
To Van Velsor, having their own space changes a child’s theatre experience.
“There’s so many kids that I work with in the schools and with their parents where their kids have sensory processing disorders,” she said. “So the child may need to get up and self stim(ulate) by standing in a circle and spinning.”
“When you go to a traditional theater it’s like ‘here’s your seat, the lights are going down, sit still and be quiet.’ Parents panic when their kids walk up and down the row. Here, walk up and down the row because you’re part of the story, because we will figure it out.”
Heather has been acting since she was a child and teaching theater since she was 16. She met Thorgersen in a Shakespeare course at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue.
Filling a need in the school, Thorgersen developed a children’s musical and began casting.Van Velsor took on one of the roles. Together at the Clare Rose Playhouse on the campus in Patchogue, their careers and relationship took off.
She’s now casted permanently as “Shawn’s wife.”
While studying at St. Joseph’s College, Heather designed her own communications major in creative drama. Think BIG was her undergraduate thesis project, originally named “Spotlight on Children” an afterschool program still enjoyed by Pat-Med Elementary students today. Think BIG became the in-school component.
Thorgersen continues to write for Think BIG while penning his own novels and teaching as an English Professor.
“I’m a lifelong reader but my favorite experiences with story remain from my own childhood,” he said. “I remember telling my mom as a kid about these different stories I wanted to tell one day and they always had a young protagonist. I don’t think I ever escaped that. There is something about the magic that we all experience in youth. “
Although, Thorgersen had a brief stint on stage, he was always more comfortable writing. It inspires him and the team to find ways to involve all kids in theater.
“There’s the shy kid who says, ‘I don’t want to go up and act but I would sure love to make the thunder sound effect and that can be my way of engaging with the story,’” he says.
Frank Longo was the kind of kid who used to take his toys apart to see how they work.
Perhaps this, his obsession with Sesame Street, and special talents in electronics, woodwork, and metalwork is how he became a self-taught puppet builder.
He met Van Velsor at Creative Ministries Performing Arts Center back in the 90s and kept in touch through the years. In 2012 while preparing a special dragon puppet for a Shrek performance, they decided to think big together.
We asked Van Velsor how she came up with the name “Think BIG.”
“When you have an idea, put it out there,” she answered. “Think big but then, what are you going to do about it? Our logo isn’t a speech bubble. It isn’t a thought bubble. It’s a cloud. So let yourself go up there into the cloud for a while and spend some time up there, but collectively we’re going to have to figure out how to make this work. “
She explains that no matter who you are, or how old you are, whether you’re outgoing, or shy, or even have stage fright or sensory issues, “Everyone has something to bring to the table. You can’t be an inventor without creativity and you can’t be an artist without structure.”
So it’s all about the group effort.
Through clever writing, masterful puppetry, and of course stellar acting, Think BIG! has celebrated their original show “Mythos” at the NYC Children’s Theatre Festival in 2014 and it continues to play at other venues. They’re helping to explain complex Greek Mythology in a way everyone (and we mean everyone) can love and understand.
It’s not often you’ll see science in theater. But at Think BIG!, they think interdisciplinary.
The play Sue Ology and the (Possibly) Haunted House is about how a girl’s love for science helps her appreciate her uniqueness, save the day, and make new friends, all while debunking the idea that her new house may be haunted.
Sue does real science experiments you can reproduce at home.
Van Velsor, Thorgersen, and Longo are really kids at heart. When they speak of their puppets, they speak as though they are beloved coworkers, and they really are. When we photographed them, full on conversations were had between puppets and puppeteers. The same happens with their audience on and off the stage.
“Our goal is to take the fabric and make you forget it’s fabric,” Longo said. “Everyone has an ‘it’. That ‘it’ for everyone is different. For us, it’s when a puppet is coming to life and the person you are talking to completely ignores you. You disappear. You’re not even there. That’s our ‘it.'”
The theater will be opening their doors in March and will be offering ½ day mini camps on days off and vacation breaks beginning with the Pat-Med district’s April break. These camps include a puppet making workshop, musical theater, and storytelling theater.
The Think BIG! group especially loves working with young people. Longo explains how children tend to be the biggest thinkers.
“Children are so much more open,” he says “Their minds are still developing and bringing this kind of level of creativity and imagination is what’s going to create more individualism in these kids.”
In the foreseeable future, the trio plans to hold playwright competitions at the elementary and middle school levels in which the winner not only gets to see their play come to life by real Think BIG! actors but will also get to direct them.
The company is very excited to introduce their new weekly Traveling Trunk Show in their Patchogue space, exploring folk lore, travel, geography, community and multiculturalism while incorporating the audience as improvisational performers.
“Who knows what someone is going to do on stage,” says Shawn, “but it’ll be funny and we’ll go with it. We care very much about the cognitive development of our audiences and about the emotional development of our audiences.
“Our goal is to make children’s theater seriously fun.”
Photo: (L-R) Frank Longo, Heather Van Velsor and Shawn Thorgersen at the future Think BIG! theater in Patchogue. (Credit: Christine Brody)