LIKE MR. Chips in James Hilton's endearing story of a teacher beloved by generations of students, Betty May of Onstage Productions has nurtured a multitude of grateful school-age children.
Under May's tender and tough tutelage, uncounted Maryland youngsters have begun to shed their negative self-images and evolve into assured adults.
"I tell them it is all right to make a mistake. The sun will still shine, the moon rise and the cars still come roaring down the road," May said in a recent interview from her office in The Little Theatre on the Corner in Ellicott City.
As executive director and artistic director for Onstage Productions, now in its 16th year, May is responsible for the staging of nine productions a year at the Main Street theater and for the subsequent touring companies.
The shows are performed by two Kids Onstage companies (ages 9-13 years), and one Teens Onstage company (ages 13-17).
"Betty taught me everything I know," said Kelli Danaker, 19, who is currently appearing as Ermengarde in the White Marsh production of "Hello, Dolly." A former member of both Kids Onstage and Teens Onstage, Danaker has just completed teaching an eight-week drama class at the Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.
"She brought a family aspect to the rehearsals, which gave us a wonderful feeling of belonging that we found nowhere else," Danaker said. "Being part of Betty's plays made me realize I wanted to do theater for the rest of my life."
Another former member with high praise for May is Hollie Pakulla, 21, from Elkridge and a fire fighter in Prince George's County. She said, "Working with Teens Onstage was wonderful. I started at
age 13 and stayed through my 16th year. The experience was invaluable in giving me courage to believe in myself."
Jason Downs, 17, from Ellicott City, a member of Kids Onstage for two years, has appeared in local theater productions and had speaking parts in the films "Hairspray" and "Clara's Heart." Awarded a theater scholarship to Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, Downs also said May instilled in him a love for acting.
"Without Betty's inspirational direction I would not have chosen the theater as my life's work," he said.
Another former student, Rick Schatz, will have a lead role in a new play, "Conversations," opening soon in Seattle with Judd Hirsch.
May said she would rather work with kids than any other segment of the population. "I have 25 rules in guiding them," she said. "Twenty-four are 'be kind' and the 25th ls 'no gum.' It is not important to me that they become theater professionals. The real kick is to see them gain self-confidence and poise that will sustain them in any walk of life."
Founded by May in 1975 the group is an independent, non-profit, live theater experience formed to showcase the talents of children and teen-agers. Thirteen are from the Baltimore area.
"Our purpose is to promote and encourage the abilities of young actors, dancers and musicians by involving them in stage productions," said May. "And to provide affordable family entertainment for the Howard County community."
Approximately 400 young people perform each year. They sing and dance and work backstage doing props, costumes, makeup, sets, lighting and all the technicalities connected with mounting a major production. "They also run the concession stands and clean up after the shows . . . all under supervision, of course," said May.
"We stage three winter/spring performances and three fall performances with the 'Kids' and 'Teens' groups. In the spring, the younger actors tour the local schools and organizations while the older children travel to schools out of state.
"Each summer we produce two major Broadway productions presented by the 'Kids' and 'Teens' troupes using a live orchestra."
May makes it a point to include children with learning and physical disabilities in the casts as well as those in financial need. "They might not otherwise get a chance to perform," she explained.
"Every year we manage to finish in the black," she says. "This is due to state and county grants, contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations, service organizations, fund-raising activities by the board and the children's wonderful parents, and ticket sales."
Tonight through Sunday, the Teens Onstage company will present the Marlo Thomas variety show, "Free To Be You and Me," a series of skits and musical numbers deploring sexual stereotyping.
May also writes scripts that contain moral and educational values. "I like to get the kids involved in discussions about what upsets them and use those themes in dramatic skits illustrated with music," she said.
"In 'A Different Way,' being staged by Kids Onstage [April 19, 20, 21] I point out there is an alternative to violence, as espoused by the philosophies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King."
The second Kids Onstage company is presenting "A Better Way," also written by May (April 26, 27 and 28), in which the director advises kids to use their heads instead of their fists.
A professional singer, dancer and actress originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., May settled in Columbia in 1972 with her psychiatrist-author husband, Gerald May, and their four children.
Tuition for fall, winter and spring enrollment is $175. Summer sessions are $250.
Tickets for all the shows are $4 to $6. For further information about enrollment and ticket reservations, call the Onstage Productions office at 465-8717.