Local theater for teens

From acting to backstage, there are many opportunities for young people.

Photo by Anna McFarland
The Muni closed out its 2019 season with a free performance by The Muni Terrifics, young performers who spent the summer learning all aspect of what it takes to stage a Muni production.

Fifteen-year-old Brigid Wilhite of Springfield got her first taste of performing in first grade when she played the role of the wind-up mouse in The Velveteen Rabbit. "I loved how sassy the role was," the Springfield High School student said.

"I knew from that moment she had star quality," says Springfield Theatre Centre president Cynthia Higginson. "She literally stole the scenes."

Wilhite grew up in a theater family and is active in choir and theater. "It's something innate in me," she said, when asked why she enjoys performing. She's now been in more than 20 shows and has performed with the Springfield Theatre Centre, Active and Creative Teen Theatre and Theatre in the Park.

ACTT was founded in 1997 when Al and Pat Hymans approached the STC about starting a teen theater organization to promote education and give teens more roles in theatrical productions. There weren't many opportunities for teens ages 13 and older. Their daughter, Kelly Robertson, was in high school at the time.

The STC's board of directors saw it as a great opportunity. The concept was for young people to learn the craft and be involved in every aspect of the production process both onstage and off, while receiving direction and support from the board.

The organization started strong, but by 2009-2010 a decision was made to put it on hiatus. It wasn't until 2014 that there was a resurgence of interest in rebuilding the program.

Kevin and Abby Cline first met in ACTT and were in the last class before the program went on hiatus. The program had played such an important part in their lives as kids that they knew in their hearts they wanted to bring it back. They approached the STC board of directors, who were agreeable to restarting the program.

Since then, interest has steadily grown, and each year the organization hosts a mixer to recruit new teens. This year more than 60 young people attended and 40 ultimately expressed an interest in joining. The organization is open to young people ages 13-19, and it has its own board, raises and manages its own funds, make its own decisions and produces one major show a year.

"Anyone is allowed in," says Wilhite. Interested teens can schedule an interview to meet and discuss interests to see what might be a good fit. "It's more a getting-to-know you. We're always looking for new people to take us into the future."

Another program that gives young people the opportunity to become involved in theater and learn what it takes to put on a production is the Hoogland Center for the Arts Kids, Teens and Juniors. Springfield native Matthew Vala was teaching at Calvary Academy when he and Gus Gordon, who serves as the Hoogland's executive director, first started talking about creating an educational program for teens. Vala is the education director and has always been passionate about performing and teaching.

"Young people are going to take over the next generation of theater," says Vala.

Founded in 2012, the goal of the program is to get students involved in the theater community and provide the training and education that they need. The program is open to all ages on a first-come, first-served basis. Students come from all over central Illinois and learn singing, acting and dancing skills.

Hoogland Juniors is for students enrolled in grades first through third, Hoogland Kids is designed for students enrolled in grades fourth through sixth and Hoogland Teens is designed for students enrolled in grades seven through 12.

When the program started, there were 43 students enrolled and by the second year, the program grew to 112 participants. This year, there are more than 143 students in the program.

"Springfield needs something like this," said Vala, noting that young people need a place to experiment and find out who they are. "No one judges you, and kids can find their authentic self."

He credits this as the reason why this program continues to thrive. "It goes beyond singing, acting and dancing," says Vala. "This is a place to feel safe," and there is an anti-bullying policy in place.

Higginson, president of Springfield Theatre Centre, echoed that sentiment, noting that theater provides a unique opportunity to kids who haven't found a place to fit in. At STC, teens produce, direct and act in each show, receiving adult supervision and guidance throughout the rehearsal process. "It gives them an opportunity to fail and learn," said Higginson. "They're the future of theater," she said.

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