For eight weeks this fall, the first- and second-graders of East Belfast and Swanville’s Kermit Nickerson elementary schools spent a couple of hours after school once a week learning about theater — from the inside out.

A new program from Belfast’s nonprofit Cold Comfort Theater introduced the youngsters to the nuts and bolts of putting on a show, from set design to makeup, prop construction to acting. The latter was experienced via theater games — lots of them.

“I laid out a pretty specific syllabus, but I also wanted to leave a lot of room for play, because I know that's how children learn best,” said Maggie Goscinski, CCT president and creator of the after school program.

The Nickerson kids took a bus to the East Belfast school so they could participate as one group. Each session began with a lot of theater games, “which inevitably results in a lot of running around and getting a lot of that energy out of their system after long day at school,” said Goscinski.

After a snack break, the program delved into hour-long workshops in some specific area of tech or in the basic aspects of theater.

“They just got familiar with a bunch of different terms, like what a director does and really reviewing the basic jobs in theater, all of the diverse things that they could get involved in,” Goscinski said.

Although she designed the program, Goscinski tapped Nathaniel Gray, a Cold Comfort performer, to be the lead instructor.

“I knew that kids loved Natty and I know that Natty loves theater, so I thought that was going to be an ideal match. He really dedicated himself to the project in an amazing way,” she said.

Indeed. Goscinski said “we asked very little of him,” but Gray went further, taking a mandated reporter class and getting first aid certification “to make sure that he was able to keep kids safe.” The result was beneficial for both the instructor and his young pupils.

“I wanted to have the new experience of teaching children or working with children, which is how I got involved. And it went well,” said Gray. “So I think it was overall a good experience for them and for me.”

Gray, like Goscinski, has a couple of retail jobs, and he also attends community college part-time. The latter may take more precedence next year, thanks in part to his experience with the CCT program.

“I’m planning on taking more classes and possibly pursuing teaching as a more serious possibility of a career choice,” he said. “I had already kind of had those thoughts, but it definitely fueled the fire.”

The intent of the program is to spark a connection to live theater in local children. Cold Comfort has run a successful summer theater camp in Belfast, a city particularly rich in theater options.

“There's a lot of that here! Midcoast Actors' Studio does a really successful children's camp, I know the Maskers have done children's summer camps, and Mary Weaver does programming at The Playhouse, as well. I was looking for a way to serve children that wasn't already being taken care of,” said Goscinski.

She sent a proposal to elementary school principals last spring, and the since-retired Principal Abigail Hartford responded right away,

“The East Belfast and Nickerson schools didn't have any kind of an after school program whatsoever … so I thought that was an underserved group that could really benefit from some theater education,” Goscinski said.

CCT’s application for a Belfast city grant didn’t pan out, but the East Belfast and Nickerson PTA decided to cover the nominal $300 asked for.

“So it was Natty and a high school student assistant, Alaura Hink, and it pretty much went as planned,” said Goscinski, adding that said planning had a lot of built-in flexibility.

The learning curve for her was realizing “how much shorter a 7-year-old's attention span is than mine.” One of the local theater folk brought for a workshop had a better handle on that. Master set designer John Bielenberg questioned the full hour blocked out for him to present his craft to the youngsters.

“That was crazy, like an hour-long lecture to 7- and 8-year-olds! So I just told him to end when they seem to be tapped out,” Goscinski said. “I was there that time, and they were really interested for that 20-minute period.”

Bielenberg, who works with Midcoast Actors’ Studio, Camden’s Everyman Rep Theatre and more, brought along set miniatures and mockups, which the children enjoyed. They also enjoyed working with Cold Comfort’s prop mistress, Dorothy Wilson.

“They went on a quest. She made a bunch of prop swords with them. They made a prop scroll and a couple of other things,” Goscinski said.

The goal of the program is to help the young students make connections to live theater and the opportunities it offers them, right in their own community. Learning about how theater works helps children be part of the process.

“So when they do go to a show, hopefully they will, they'll feel like this is a place for them because they know what's going on,” Goscinski said. “They’ll say, 'Oh, I know John, he made that set … the set designer does this and the director does this.'”

Having completed this first session, Goscinski hopes to return with a program for third- and fourth-graders, supporting the children who went through the initial program. The older grades' after school program would be more project-based, she said.

“Kids would have an opportunity to direct their own short play, direct their friends in a short play, and actually do those jobs in theater” that were introduced this fall, she said. The thir-d and fourth-grade program might culminate in a small performance for friends and family.

“I'd like to bring it back next fall, but to all of the schools, do a full, all-encompassing program,” she said.

It’s an ambitious undertaking for any group or program director, even more so for such a small troupe and young a president. But Goscinski believes in it, so much so she has put college on hold for a while.

“I sort of realized that I was doing what I wanted to do already. When I stop being able to offer the theater opportunities because of my education, then that'll be a sign to me that I need to get more,” she said. “But right now, I feel like I have a lot more to offer our community.”

For more information about the after school theater program, or to donate toward next year’s session, send email to coldcomforttheater@gmail or mail to Cold Comfort Theater, 139 Northport Ave., Belfast, ME 04915.