It was July 2010. In a church basement with no air conditioning, 22 kids ages 4-14 took the stage to perform “Fiddler on the Roof.” The curtain only partially closed, the boombox was a neighbor’s alarm clock, and a broom closet served as their greenroom.
But under the direction of eight staff members led by Donna West and husband Scott, the show was successful, and Stage Right Performing Arts was born. This summer, nearly 10 years later, approximately 210 kids and 45 staff will present three shows: “Lion King Jr.,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Grease.”
“There’s 80 little ones in the Lion King right now. I never expected this. This was just going to be a fun little summer side thing that we did, and it has just exploded,” West explained.
With some students driving nearly an hour to get to rehearsals, Stage Right has made a name for itself across the metro with its top-of-the-line productions and positive, nurturing environment. Though she takes pride in putting on the shows, for West the primary goal is to “create lifelong learners and lovers of art.” She accomplishes this by providing a safe space for kids to be themselves, make new friends and have fun putting on a show. It isn’t about how talented you are, she says. “We’re going to love you as a person,” said West.
Students confirm as much, saying the tools they learn not only make them better performers, but better people, ready to tackle anything.
Maggie Mulligan, 19, has been with the program from its start. This summer, before heading off to college, she will be playing Frenchie in “Grease.”
“Donna and Scott teach us how to act, sing and dance obviously, but what they’re really doing is recognizing the unique performers in all of us and bringing those to the spotlight,” she said. “That for me has taught me how to look at people and recognize the unique in them and to love and appreciate them because I’ve gotten that so much from this program.”
Fritz Sullivan, 14, agrees. “You see a lot of people in a school environment that just don’t know how to be nice to people, and you see in a setting like this how easy it is just to be nice.”
The technical training students receive is also done with care. Vocal safety is particularly stressed. Teachers at Stage Right focus on preserving rather than exploiting vocal talent, teaching kids how to sing properly with control.
Grace Fields, 15, has been with the program since she was 4 and will be starring as Millie in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” She credits Stage Right with giving her confidence and encouraging her to try new things. Her first album of original music, “Just a Dreamy Idea” is currently available on major platforms including iTunes and Spotify.
Another student, Janie Carr, won Starlight Theatre’s Blue Star Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role this year for her portrayal of Ariel in Shawnee Mission East’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.” This past week she competed in New York City at the Jimmy Awards.
Stage Right students are no stranger to the Blue Star Awards. Many of their students also excel in school and other extracurriculars. One year they had 12 National Merit Scholars in a group of 40. Teaching artist and Stage Right alumni Darrington Clark says that’s no coincidence.
“What the kids have to do in this program exercises your brain in a way that a lot of people don’t get,” he said. “And I think it really puts kids, whether they pursue this as a career or not, at a distinct advantage in whatever they do decide to do.”
In addition to their summer shows, Stage Right has fall and spring concerts, and offers acting classes for ages 4 and up along with show choirs and workshops. They’ve also launched a Young Professionals Program for the more serious student, which continues to hone acting and singing skills along with the basics of dance.
They end their year with an awards ceremony of their own, complete with a red carpet. Awards are voted on by everyone to celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
Perhaps Clark described the program best when he said that in the competitive and stereotypically “catty” musical theater world “there are a lot of wrong ways to teach kids in this field, and I think this is a right one.”
Stage Right’s summer season began this week with “Lion King Jr.”, which has performances tonight and tomorrow at Center High School. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” takes the stage July 3, 5 and 6; and “Grease” will run July 10-14.