Tamara Solum looks back at 20 years of making a dramatic difference in the life of kids.
Some talented kids want grow up to be actors when they grow up. Some adult actors are still kids at heart. Tamara Solum is one of them. Her inner child loves the magic of make-believe. She shares the secrets of that magic with area children at Drama Kids of Manasota, an after-school, dramatic arts program, serving children between the ages of 5 and 18. This local offshoot of Drama Kids International is nearing its 20th birthday. Solum’s has been its happy director and owner for 18 of those years.
Drama Kids is a perfect fit for her passion and talents. Solum graduated with a theater degree from Occidental College in L.A. in 1988. You’d think her path to Drama Kids was a straight line. It was actually a winding road …
“I did a little bit of everything — social work, substitute teaching, case management, you name it. I even joined the Peace Corps, where I met my husband, Mike.”
In 2002, Solum was living in Sarasota and needed a change. She wanted to tap into her theater skills. Ideally, she’d work with children and stay close to her two young daughters.
“What’s a girl with a theater degree and a stint in the Peace Corps do?”
Solum flipped through the want ads. One job notice caught her eye. It sounded fabulous …
Drama Teacher Wanted!
DRAMA KIDS OF SARASOTA
Solum contacted Drama Kids immediately. They hired her as teaching director. In 2004, the original owner moved on. Tamara and Mike Solum bought the franchise. And they’ve been running it ever since.
Did they try to reinvent Drama Kids in the early years?
“We didn’t have to,” says Solum. “It worked just fine, and there was no need to fix it.”
Solum kept doing the work she loved — teaching acting skills to open-minded, enthusiastic kids. The local “Drama Kids” already served both Sarasota and Manatee counties. They renamed it “Drama Kids of Manasota” to reflect that. The organization also continued offering its after-school program at area schools and other community locations.
The new owners made a few small changes, but nothing dramatic.
Drama Kids did transform the Solums, though. And that was the biggest change.
They’d bought a theatrical institution. In the process, they became a theater family.
“Mike became our default tech guy,” Solum recalls. “He’s been running the light board and doing the heavy lifting for a really long time.”
Their two daughters, Lilianna and Kari, were devoted pupils in Drama Kids’ after-school programs. Their devotion continued from elementary school to high school. What was that like?
“Like growing up on Theater Island,” says Solum. “Acting and stagecraft became part of their vocabulary and life experience. They loved it — and we all loved it. And we all got so much out of it — both personally and professionally.”
She adds that their extended family of Drama Kids got a lot out of it, too.
Some did grow up to be working actors. Others became drama teachers.
Drama Kids boasts a long list of alumni actors and educators. Hannah Swain does voiceover work in L.A. — including a giant, talking canary on “Ruff-Ruff, Tweet, and Dave,” an interactive cartoon on the Sprouts children’s network. Emma Diner is starting a career in musical theater in summer stock and other professional gigs. Zack Fitzpatrick is now a Drama Kids teacher.
The Solums’ two daughters have their own success stories. Lilianna is a working equity actor based in New York City. (This January, she’ll be performing in “Carousel” at the Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, FL.) Kari moved to L.A. to pursue her screenwriting dream.
Bringing characters to life on stage isn’t for everyone. But the art of stage builds character. Learn to act. You’ll learn self-confidence and self-expression as well.
“Dramatic art is the ultimate cure for the fear of public speaking,” Solum says. “My daughters are two great examples! They always loved doing oral presentations. They’d done it so often in Drama Kids, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s easy! I can do that wearing a blindfold with one hand tied behind my back!”
Self-actualization is one lesson. But it’s not all about self.
“Acting’s all about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes,” she says. “The kids learn empathy — not just for imaginary characters, but for each other.”
Solum recalls one Drama Kid’s battle with dyslexia. And how the other kids were always on her side. “She’d struggle reading a script out loud,” she says. “The other kids would rally around her, and sound out a strange word she didn’t recognize. That girl was always the first to go off-book. She’d memorize the script at home, so she didn’t need to read when she performed.”
According to Solum, student solidarity helped her win that victory.
“Theater is a team effort,” she adds. “Our kids learn to pull together for the sake of the show. They know everyone has to be there, or the show won’t go on.”
Solum’s show has been going on for years. It’s a case of those who can do teach. Along with training her Drama Kids, she’s starred on area stages. Her community theater roles include Miss Hannigan, the tipsy orphanage tyrant of “Annie,” and one of the Baby Boomer bathing beauties in “The Bikinis.” She plans to stay in the spotlight. But will be stepping off the Drama Kids stage.
Retire, in other words.
And find the ideal person to lead the program in the years ahead.
“I’ve had a good run as teaching director,” she says. “But all good things must end. I’ve decided it’s time to pass the torch to someone else. Someone who’s fearless, loves kids, and ideally has both teaching and business experience.”
It’s hard work. According to Solum, seeing a child fall in love with the magic of acting makes it all worth it. For some, it’s just plain fun. For others, it’s a lifetime commitment.
Solum made that commitment. What gave her the courage?
“My dad,” she says. “He was a writer and an English teacher. As a high school senior, I was applying to colleges and feeling overwhelmed. “What should I major in? What do I want to be when I grow up?” I loved theater and performing, but was that a smart life choice? So I asked my dad for advice. He said, “Well, let’s say money wasn’t an issue. If somebody paid you to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?” And I looked at him and said, “I would play!”
“I wanted to play for a living. For the last 20 years, I’ve lived my dream. I play with the kids every day! And we all get to pretend, giggle and be silly in a safe environment. We’re all free to be ourselves — or crazier, funnier, braver versions of ourselves. It’s been a delight!”
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