In theater, space matters. Whether staged at a gilded playhouse in the city or a rural barn, all theater really needs is a safe space, where creative expression rules.

For six weeks each summer, Tufts’ Balch Arena Theater becomes a playhouse for young people and by young people. Around seventy children, ages eleven to sixteen, form the Magic Circle performance troupe, which is overseen by college-age counselors and adult staff members. Anyone can participate. It’s the oldest continuously operated children’s theater east of the Mississippi. Tufts professors started it in 1952, putting on Pinocchio and The Emperor’s New Clothes. This past summer marked the theater’s sixty-fifth anniversary, and it’s still going strong.

The child actors perform in the round—usually three different productions each summer—and for the kids, there’s as much happening offstage as on. They build sets and assemble costumes. A loading dock is often used for painting, and any corner or hallway is a potential spot for stagecraft. And once it’s show time, some of the youngest people in the building control the spotlights, hoist the curtain, and whisper into headsets.

“To this day, when the theater houselights go down and the music begins, I still get goosebumps,” said Judy Schurgin, who joined Magic Circle at age ten in 1957, and remains a supporter of the program. “I get that adrenaline rush whenever that happens.” In one of those early productions, Schurgin—now a resident of Stoneham, Massachusetts—was the stage manager, second-in-command only to the professional director. When it came time to cue the music and light the lights, the director was nowhere to be found. Schurgin waited five minutes in the control room with a college-age counselor. “He said to me, ‘Judy, you’re the stage manager, it’s up to you. What are we going to do?’” she remembered. “I said, ‘All right, places everybody! We’re starting the show!’”

Sherlock Holmes scene

A 2016 Magic Circle performance of Sherlock Holmes and the First Baker Street Irregular.  Photo: Kris Klos

The director, who’d hit a traffic jam, arrived twenty minutes later. Schurgin’s decision to forge ahead on her own stands out all these years later as a shining moment in her life. It gave her the confidence to act when faced with uncertainty, she said. “It definitely does help you become who you are.” That’s something director Luke Jorgensen has heard before during his twenty-three years with Magic Circle. “It’s a very special place for many people,” he said.

The theater’s process starts each year with auditions in February. Would-be “Magic Circlers” stand alone on stage and take direction. It’s competitive, with as many as one hundred children trying out, which is about thirty more hopefuls than slots. “The whole point of the program is putting kids into a position where they are not sure they can do this task, but we know they can succeed at it,” Jorgensen said.

Bair Klos, sixteen, recalled her first audition, the summer before sixth grade. It was “nerve-wracking,” she said, but it set her on a theater-loving path. “With friends from school, I always felt very different, so I closed myself off,” she said. “But as soon as I made friends at Magic Circle, my life did a 180 and flipped upside down. I am no longer nervous to express myself. If I want to be loud, I’ll be loud. If I want to be quiet, I’ll be quiet.”

Treasure Island scene

A scene from a 2017 staging of Treasure Island. Photo: Luke Jorgensen

After auditions come the performances, and then, inevitably, the end of the season. On the program’s final night each summer, the kids dress up. There are awards. There’s cake and lemonade—and lots of tears. “They just sob on the last day,” said Joanne Barnett, director of the Tufts Children’s Theater Program. “All of them, every time. We just hand out the Kleenex.”

But then comes February again, and it’s on to the next summer of shows.