Theater instructor's legacy lives on through students

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Born in a small village near London on the cusp of World War II, Naomi Marrow grew up under threat of bomb blasts. Mines hid in a field nearby and tank traps lined the road.

At the age of 6, Marrow found theater.

A woman had started a theater company in the village offering classes for a penny, and Marrow would stay with the company til she married at 20.

Theater became a refuge, constant in times of uncertainty. When Marrow started Backstage Productions in Williamsburg nearly 20 years ago, she created a similar space.

"It's a way for all of us to come together to escape the realities of the world, and we all escape our realities together," said Kelsey Helmick, 28, who first joined Backstage in middle school and still helps out with the company.

Over the years, Backstage has presented countless productions, always free, and Marrow's mission has touched hundreds, likely more than a thousand, young lives.

"For her, it was always about opening the doors and making theater affordable for anybody who wanted to be in it and anybody who wanted to come see it," said her daughter Colleen Wright. "By having the doors open for free, any child can come in and dream."

Backstage is readying to perform "A Christmas Carol" on Sunday with a cast of nearly 50 students. This will be the first show without Marrow, who passed away in October.

As the saying goes, the show must go on. Marrow wouldn't have it any other way.

"There's been a few tears, but for the most part we roll up our sleeves, and we do the job that she taught us to do, and we work hard," Wright said. "To do a good show is to honor her."

A longtime Williamsburg resident, Marrow taught theater around the area even before Backstage, including at Eastern Virginia School for the Performing Arts and Walsingham Academy.

The Backstage motto, "Good enough is not good enough," is telling of the level at which Marrow taught. But more than technique or terms, she taught passion and poise.

"It has forced me to come out of my shell," said Rebecca Tewksbury, 17. "It's built who I am as a person, and I really can't say how thankful I am for that."

Many former "Backstagers" continue in the arts, in theater. Wright mentioned a former student who started his own theater company. This past summer, even, a group of alumni presented a free production of "The Odd Couple" at the Williamsburg library, inspired by Marrow.

"Teaching theater was the most important thing," Wright said. "She said the show was the bow on the package and that the goal wasn't the show. The goal was the journey and the growth."

The magic of Backstage, as the name suggests, happened behind the scenes.

A mother of three kids who all participate Backstage, Laura Smole said she's spent Fridays and Sundays, the company's rehearsal days, with the group for the better part of 10 years.

"Naomi accepted us, loved us, helped us," Smole said. "I cried with her. We laughed. (Naomi and her family) were just always there to encourage and help me raise them."

"These were not children she taught," Wright said. "These were her nephews, her nieces, her grandchildren, her sisters, her brothers. They truly, truly were her family."

Following Marrow's death, a crowd-funding page established in her honor raised more than $4,000 towards building a portable stage for the company. The stage will have a home at Olive Branch Christian Church, Marrow's church and the longtime location of Backstage rehearsals.

Wright follows in Marrow's footsteps as Backstage director. She and her sister, Karen Marrow, have helped out with the company from the start. In fact, the group starts rehearsals for the next production, "Shrek The Musical," in January.

"Mom did give me the option of closing doors, and I said, how?" Wright said. "I can't. Because they have become my children now, and they have become my nieces and nephews and best friends and sisters."

Helmick is currently studying theater at Thomas Nelson Community College, with plans to transfer to a university. Any stage she steps on, much like other Backstagers, she does so with Marrow in mind.

"I make sure that I'm doing the best I can so that I am honoring everything that Naomi taught me, and everything that Naomi was and everything that Naomi still is," Helmick said.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Backstage Productions

For more information, visit the "Backstage Productions" Facebook page or contact Colleen Wright at cewright14@gmail.com.

"A Christmas Carol" will be presented at 2 p.m. on Dec. 18 (Christmas caroling starts at 1:30 p.m.) at Williamsburg Regional Library, 515 Scotland St. Admission is free, but seating is limited.

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