She was bitten by the theater bug at 5 years old. By the time she was 8, her fate had been sealed. Once Noelle Arms received that "Next Big Director" award during "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," she was all in.

Her vision quickly turned reality when, at 13, she began Poison Apple Productions.

Now 26, the Pittsburg native has never looked back, though she may not have had much choice.

After all, nearly her entire family -- grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins -- were involved with the Pittsburg Community Theatre for decades.

It was a natural fit for Arms, whose first role was in "Alice in Wonderland."

"(There were) three generations involved when I did my first audition," she said. "I was thrilled to have my very own line. From then on, I was hooked."

She went on to do many more plays, and graduated with honors with a bachelor's degree in theater arts from Chapman University.

She credits her aunt, Pamela Arms Ksenzulak, for the nudge. "The idea was in my head before but (that award) definitely sold the idea."

Arms is absolutely drawn to theater because of the connections it provides.

"I love that the actors on the stage are listened to and heard by the audience ... for that brief time, we all are asked (and most oblige) to turn off all electronics and distractions from the outside world. We all sit together and are taken on a journey that leaves us with a choice to let it touch our hearts, and a chance to change our minds.

"Theater is important because it promotes that personal connection between actors and audience members. I'm always curious about the conversations (after) -- that's how you know if a show is good, if it can sustain a conversation the whole ride home."

Homeschooled, Arms graduated in 2004, and studied at Los Medanos and Diablo Valley colleges. She was mentored and inspired by Beth McBrien and Jim Kirkwood. After Chapman, she was accepted into the prestigious Eugene O'Neill National Theater Institute in 2009 -- a life-changing and meaningful time for her.

"NTI inspired me to teach theater."

Poison Apple began in a multi-use room in Pleasant Hill with an "amazing group of peers, partner and parents" supporting the projects.

Since then, it has grown into a more professional and educational vision.

As her theater company begins its 14th year, almost all of the original group of young actors have "graduated from college and are doing amazing things."

In addition to plays, there is also an educational branch, which offers training in stage combat, playwriting, directing, acting, singing, makeup design and theater production.

Sprouts is a storytelling program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Seedlings is for 5- and 6-year-olds, while Seeds is for the 7- to 10-year-old set. Beginning Scenework stars experienced actors (ages 10-14).

Her classes and casts comprise youngsters from East County to Pleasant Hill to Napa to Berkeley.

So, what's the draw?

"Poison Apple is a magical place," she said. "It promotes a safe and respectful environment. Youth achieve things they never thought they could. It's the magic of theater. They earn my respect and admiration for how dedicated, passionate and happy they are. Poison Apple gives us a place to tell important stories."

She also adores how her young charges are able to be themselves.

"Kids are guarded, and hold themselves together at school, some at home. Many have shields up. Theater offers relief; an excuse to 'play someone else' but, really, I think it's the chance to finally be themselves for a little while."

As artistic director, Arms oversees eight productions a year -- four main stage shows, along with three educational program performances and a summer offering.

She is thrilled about her upcoming production of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Jr."

"It's been an amazing process working with 31 talented and enthusiastic kids to create this tasty show. (It includes a) 12-foot chocolate waterfall, more than 20 complex oompa loompa dances and, of course, surprises. (We all) work hard to seriously make beautiful theater to share with our communities."

The majority of shows and classes are held at Poison Apple's Playhouse, 835 Arnold Drive, Suite 6, in Martinez. However, "Willy Jr.," plays Aug. 7-9 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. For ticket prices and details about that show, call 925-943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org. For details on Poison Apple participation and class fees, offerings and more, visit www.poisonappleproductions.com, email admin@poisonappleproductions.com or call 925-957-0773.

Reach Trine Gallegos at TrineG@att.net.

POISON APPLE
"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Jr." plays Aug. 7-9 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. For ticket prices and details about that show, call 925-943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org. For details on Poison Apple participation and class fees, offerings and more, visit www.poisonappleproductions.com, email admin@poisonappleproductions.com or call 925-957-0773.