New era for Enchanted Circle Theater
by Neil Serven
Holyoke’s Commonwealth Award-winning Enchanted Circle Theater recently underwent a change at the top when Priscilla Kane Hellweg announced that she was retiring from her post as Executive Director after more than 40 years with the organization.
In a farewell letter to the Enchanted Circle community, Hellweg wrote, “I write to you with a strong and tender heart. After 40 years of true love and dedication to Enchanted Circle – I have decided to move on to my next adventure. I've been working closely with our board of directors during the past year to envision this transition, and the company is now in the process of developing a new organizational structure.”
Enchanted Circle was formed in 1976
as an offshoot of the Amherst Players Guild,with the objective of creating quality theater productions for younger audiences. It was still very much a fledgling organization when Hellweg learned of the theater while a student at Hampshire College with a concentration in arts, education, and psychology.
An Early Start
Hellweg had discovered her love for theater at a young age, putting on plays for her parents with her two older sisters. When she ascended to middle school and discovered that it didn’t have an after-school theater program, Hellweg and two friends created their own.
“But I never thought I would go into it as a profession,” she said.
"We were a touring theater company—and throwing out the Truffula seed to the audience, a sea of children and teachers, and tears just streaming down my face. That kind of awakened a sense of social entrepreneurship and connected a lot of dots for me...”
As part of her final project at Hampshire, she compared and contrasted the teaching of arts education to diverse populations, from creative drama to kindergarteners at Crocker Farm in Amherst to teaching movement therapy exercises and dance to residents of a veterans’ nursing home in Boston, as well as teaching a dance theater and improv class to the Hampshire community. Two of the founding members of Enchanted Circle were students in the improv class who asked her to join their company as a performer.
As an educational theater company, Enchanted Circle was focused on culturally enlightening material for all ages, including Japanese folk tales and a performance of Under the Banyan Tree.
An early fond memory for Hellweg was getting to portray the Lorax, from Dr. Seuss’s tale. “I remember performing at Rowe Elementary School. We were a touring theater company—and throwing out the Truffula seed to the audience, a sea of children and teachers, and tears just streaming down my face. That kind of awakened a sense of social entrepreneurship and connected a lot of dots for me,” she said.
Hellweg grew into a leadership role, ultimately assuming the role of artistic director. Under her guidance, the company expanded its reach from a local touring theater company to a nationally recognized leader in youth arts education. Enchanted Circle was originally based in Northampton but moved to Holyoke when Hellweg became the director, operating it out of her home for 20 years before relocating to Holyoke’s Open Square. Enchanted Circle currently consists of nine teaching artists overseen by a nine-member Board of Directors.
The company now describes itself as a “professional theater company” that creates and performs original plays that have historical, cultural, or socially relevant themes. It works with schools and youth organizations to design original theatrical performances that intersect with lesson plans and curricula.
In addition to schools, the company works in partnership with a variety of social service agencies and youth development programs to allow young people to develop life skills through the arts. Over the years, Enchanted Circle has grown to work with over 80 community partners, including Easthampton’s Treehouse Foundation, as well as organizations serving at-risk youth, foster children, homeless populations, and pregnant and parenting teens.
At the same time, Enchanted Circle offers programs that train teachers on integrating the arts into their lesson plans. The company’s artist-in-residence program allows schools to use theater arts to help students further engage with the material in their curriculum, as well as give students an opportunity to write and stage their own productions. Plays have covered historical eras and individuals, such as the Industrial Revolution and figures from the Civil War, as well as topics from the life and earth sciences and even day-to-day math.
Allowing schools and organizations to develop their own material, and choose the subjects they wanted to make the focus of their productions, gave Enchanted Circle the flexibility to reach out to more partners. “One thing organically developed into the next,” Hellweg said. “No two days were the same.”
"That student who never speaks in class spoke in your workshop... That student who never writes wrote a whole section of the play."
Enchanted Circle has performed in venues both local and around the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and as far away as Charleston, South Carolina and Miami. In 1986 the company was hired to put together a performance at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum featuring American writers, including Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Ernest Hemingway.
A rewarding aspect for Hellweg was seeing and hearing stories of children who typically struggled to learn, find a way to engage with lessons through theater arts.
“We had teachers say, ‘My students never listen, and here they were, listening to American literature on stage,” she said.
In addition, performing as part of an ensemble cast helps students learn teamwork skills, Hellweg noted, and helps them find their voices as they look to contribute to a production.
“Teachers have been saying for years, ‘that student who never speaks in class spoke in your workshop,’” she said. “’That student who never writes wrote a whole section of the play. That student who never is able to connect with other students became the head of the fox [of a 3-part fox costume]. You get 3 kindergarten students to come together to be a fox, they have to get along.”
Hellweg recalls casting one 5th grade student who had been somewhat of a discipline problem (“sent to the office more often than he was in class”) as the lead in a play based on a short story the class was reading. “It changed how he saw himself,” Hellweg says of the student, now grown and the Executive Director of a local nonprofit organization.
One memorable Holyoke 3rd grader was cast in a play called The Streets Are Free... The show was about children who were forced to play in the streets because the town’s grumpy mayor wouldn’t allow a playground to be built. In a remarkable bit of foresight, the student who was cast as the mayor eventually grew up to become a real-life mayor himself: Alex Morse.
She also tells of one memorable Holyoke 3rd grader who was cast in a play called The Streets Are Free, based on a short story. The show was about children who were forced to play in the streets because the town’s grumpy mayor wouldn’t allow a playground to be built. In a remarkable bit of foresight, the student who was cast as the mayor eventually grew up to become a real-life mayor himself: Alex Morse.
Under Hellweg’s leadership, Enchanted Circle has earned numerous awards and accolades, including the;
2015 Commonwealth Award, Massachusetts’ highest honor in Arts, Sciences, and Humanities,
2013 Arts and Humanities Award for Outstanding Organization from New England Public Radio,
PBS series American Graduate highlighted the company’s Shakespeare program, run in conjunction with Holyoke Public Schools to combat summer learning loss.
In addition, Hellweg herself was the recipient of a;
2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network,
Champion of Arts Education Award from the Massachusetts Alliance for Arts in Education, and
Millennium Award from the National Guild of Community Arts Educators.
Hellweg’s decision to step aside comes at a time when she is confident that the theater company she ran for 40 years will remain in good hands. “I believe that my leaving creates new leadership opportunities, especially for our BIPoC members, to help the company reach new heights and depths,” she wrote in her farewell letter.
While a successor has yet to be chosen, the company announced in a press release that it was working on a temporary management plan in Hellweg’s stead and researching various governance models with the aim of announcing a plan by the end of the school year.
For Hellweg, it offers a chance to narrow her focus. “It was time for me to stop doing 77 things at the same time to be able to really focus on a few things that need more attention in order for them to happen,” she said.
She already plans to stay busy with new projects. One is the creation of a new nonprofit: the Institute for Arts Integration, whose focus will be arts and nonprofit advocacy. Hellweg described the organization as “a hub of creative education, a way of training the trainers,” that will conduct research devoted to case studies and statistics on the impact of arts education, with the goal of advocating for Enchanted Circle and similar arts nonprofits.
Hellweg is also writing a book, which she has been working on for eight years. Titled Actively Engaged: Theater Arts in the Classroom, it is planned as a manual intended for teachers who wish to integrate arts-based education techniques into their lesson plans.
In between those projects, Hellweg looks forward to being able to spend more time with her husband and two adult sons. “I now actually have breakfast with my husband!” she joked. “I have slowed down a bit, it’s been very good.”
That means stepping away from the company she has grown and nurtured from its infancy—which, she admits, leaves her with a heavy heart.
“Forty years is a good long run, and it has been a love affair,” she said.
PHOTO CREDITS: Janine Norton, Enchanted Circle Theater