- Associated Press - Sunday, September 13, 2020

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - Two local entertainment businesses are teaming up with area children to create entertaining and educational digital content by kids, for kids, who may be spending more time at home.

Appomattox-based nonprofit Wolfbane Productions and Lend Me a Princess, a Lynchburg-based business providing character appearances at birthday parties and other events in the area portrayed by actors, are joining forces to make the most of an unconventional, pandemic-induced social situation.

They hope to help children and their parents find some fun and relief as numerous traditional life events, such as camps, after-school programs and school itself, have been disrupted, while expanding their own professional horizons by focusing on creating digital content.

“I personally don’t have kids, but I can’t imagine the stresses parents are feeling right now, having to become parents and teachers,” said Ken Arpino, executive director of Wolfbane Productions. “We want to be able to provide some kind of fun, educational content for their kids to watch as they’re stuck at home, and hopefully relieve some of the burden from the parents.”

Since the pandemic, theaters around the world spent time shut down, and if re-opening must have limited audiences and follow public health guidelines such as mask-wearing, social distancing and increased sanitation procedures. As a result of restrictions, some venues have tried getting creative with digital content. With its 2020 season postponed until next year, Wolfbane Productions is one such venue going digital.

Ellee Evans, founder and owner of Lend Me a Princess, has also seen her business change through the pandemic.

Started in 2015, the business ultimately fell in Evans’s lap during her senior year of high school when she was asked to appear as Cinderella at a local child’s birthday party.

Following her first character appearance at a birthday party, requests came steadily in. Evans went with the flow, appearing at numerous parties or events as familiar Disney characters. Over time, she expanded to include not only Disney, but also super heroes and original characters created by Evans.

As business grew, Evans, who has a background in theater, enlisted the help of volunteers - primarily from her alma mater, the University of Lynchburg, and sometimes high school theater participants - to bring characters to life.

Lend Me a Princess offers experience for both theater students, or those in the education realm, Evans said. Those desiring experience with improvisation, acting, and costuming, or learning how to interact with children may find valuable hands-on opportunities through the business.

Through Lend Me a Princess, Evans focuses on bringing a “magical” experience to lower-income household birthday parties, as well as charitable community events.

Instead of in-person character appearances at social events, Evans has taken to making personal video messages or having live chats with clients during the pandemic, giving children a virtual meeting with a favorite character of theirs.

Lend Me a Princess’s first collaboration with Wolfbane was in 2017, at Wolfbane’s “Experience the Holidays” event in Appomattox. Lend Me a Princess provided character appearances in Santa’s Village, including Buddy the Elf, Elsa and Anna from Disney’s Frozen, Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and some of Santa’s elves. The partnership worked well for both parties, Evans and Arpino said. Together with their latest endeavor, they are hoping to reach a broader demographic.

“Their (Wolfbane’s) audiences are more adult, and my audiences are definitely children, so us combining our worlds gives them the opportunity to reach a different demographic,” Evans said.

For Wolfbane’s first jump into creating content specifically for children, Arpino said Evans and Lend Me a Princess made the perfect partner.

“Ellee Evans has got so much experience, and she’s got such a great imagination,” he said. “She’s got a bunch of really great ideas, and we’re really excited to reach a newer, younger audience.”

“We want to create opportunities for children right now to be able to still do theater,” Evans said.

Wolfbane Productions put out a casting call for local children ages six through 12 at the beginning of August. More than a dozen children from diverse backgrounds and ages answered the call by submitting video auditions before the close of the casting period in mid-August.

“We have seen some of the cutest kids send in videos. Just so much imagination,” Arpino said. “We had one kid doing impressions of Johnny Cash. We had other kids reading their favorite story. It was just amazing how creative and imaginative the kids in our area are, so we’re excited to get to work with them.”

Many of the “Lend Me a Wolfbane” videos will feature familiar characters from worlds like Disney and Marvel, as well as some of Evans’s original characters. Other videos will feature children as themselves, without character appearances. With a mix of stand-alone videos and themed series planned, Evans and Arpino hope audiences will find something enjoyable for everyone.

Arpino said Wolfbane sees an opportunity within an obstacle: the prime chance for Wolfbane to focus on other types of production besides traditional theater.

“Dustin Williams started Wolfbane in 2008, and he called it Wolfbane Productions because he hoped that someday we would be more than just theater,” Arpino said. “We wanted to reinvent art in our area. I think that the world told us to kind of live up to our name.”

Filming for “Lend Me a Wolfbane” kids’ programming, along with some of Wolfbane’s other digital content, began the weekend of Aug. 29 and 30 at Wolfbane’s Appomattox location.

Arpino said working with the children was a great experience, from acting on camera to letting them help as assistants behind-the-scenes.

Nine-year-old Aislynn Sandman was one of two children who took part in filming a video involving experimental doughnut recipes.

“My favorite part was being able to have fun, and experiment and get messy,” Aislynn said of filming, describing “soupy ice cream” and marshmallows as some of the ingredients.

“I think for Aislynn, it was a really fantastic opportunity for her to show confidence,” said Ashley Sandman, Aislynn’s mother and president on Wolfbane’s board of directors. “Getting to see her gain that comfort level and gain some confidence while she was filming was very exciting.”

Aislynn has volunteered behind-the-scenes with Wolfbane since she was small, Ashley said, spending time on site, helping build and paint sets, make props, and do anything else she is able to do when not watching a show or spending time with staff and actors.

Ashley said the opportunity to safely interact with a few other people was a good social outlet for Aislynn, who is doing school virtually this year.

“These kids are going to make people’s day. They’re going to make people smile. They’re already making my day, and I can’t wait. I hope that we make their day, too,” Evans said.

All of Wolfbane Productions’ digital content, including “Lend Me a Wolfbane” videos, will be streamed through Patreon, a subscription site online. Content will start coming available this month.

“If you’re going to turn any of these lemons into lemonade, let’s at least get some awesome art out of it,” Arpino said.

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