Eight years ago, Peoria Players had a bright idea: Summer Youth Theatre, a chance for the area’s youth to learn about theatre and exhibit their talents for the community.

Giving Kids a Theatrical Experience

Peoria Players Business Administrator Nicki Haschke said the concept originated in 1997 with Steve Bortolotti, and the first production was Grease. "This summer, our production of Footloose marks our eighth annual Youth Theatre. Its purpose is to develop and encourage the talent of teens ages 14 to 20 in all areas of theatre-performance, technical (such as stage management, lighting, and costumes), and orchestration. Our Youth Theatres also have a student director. The Youth Theatre is targeted to an age group that many times falls between the cracks. The Peoria Park District’s Community Children’s Theatre has a wonderful program geared to a slightly younger age group, and many main season shows in the area call for performers in their 20s and older."

Footloose Director Donnie Stevenson said the show was a great choice because it combines powerful music, explosive dancing, and great acting talent. "It celebrates the wisdom of listening to young people, guiding them with a warm heart and an open mind. The story line begins when Ren and his mother move from Chicago to a small farming town. Ren is prepared for the inevitable adjustment period at his new high school, but what he isn’t prepared for are the rigorous local laws, including a ban on dancing. The ban is the brainchild of a preacher determined to exercise the control over the town youth that he can’t command in his own home. When the reverend’s rebellious daughter sets her cap for Ren, her roughneck boyfriend tries to sabotage Ren’s reputation, with many of the locals eager to believe the worst about the new kid."

Haschke said based on the positive feedback Youth Theatre productions have always received, she expects Footloose to be quite successful. "The Youth Theatre has become quite a tradition at Peoria Players. We’ve had a terrific response from audiences and a very supportive following. A large number of the participants have gone on to star in many other mainstage shows-not only in our area, but also in other cities such as Chicago and New York. I personally have seen many friendships developed among these kids-they’ve formed lasting bonds and have fond memories of their experiences."

Stevenson said the talent of Peoria youth is amazing. "Footloose features some of the best talent this area has to offer. You’ll see many veterans of the stage, as well as a mix of first-timers, each offering his or her own special element."

It’s the individual energy each player adds that’s inspiring, he said. "One of the best parts of the Summer Youth Theatre is the energy and excitement the kids bring to the entire production process. It makes all the difference when cast members arrive to rehearsals anticipating a fun time with friends as well as the production staff. That combination results in quality entertainment. The hardest part, however, is in the casting. The number of kids available exceeds the amount of physical space we have to work with. There are those who must be turned away for that reason."

A Long-Running Tradition

Youth Theatre is just a kid compared to parent organization Peoria Players, which is the oldest continuously operating community theatre in Illinois and the fourth oldest in the nation. "Peoria Players Theatre began in 1919, and we’ve been in continuous operation since that time," Haschke said. "Peoria Players was very lucky to have a faithful and determined group of individuals that kept the theatre alive throughout many obstacles, including the war, the depression, having I-74 built through one of our playhouses, and even having to take our ’show on the road’ while our current facility on the corner of Lake and University was being built in 1957. This year, we’ll open with our 86th consecutive season."

Peoria Players’ main season runs September through May and consists of four musicals, one drama, and one comedy, she said. "But we also have a special fundraiser in June; our Summer Youth Theatre in August; and A Holiday Extravaganza in December, which features the Peoria Pops Orchestra."

Peoria Players is embarking on its 2004-2005 season, which Haschke said has a variety of productions to suit many different tastes. "We open in September with the classic musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, directed by Jo Orrill. In October, we bring to audiences the heartwarming Driving Miss Daisy, directed by Liz Landes Reed. In November, we present yet another installment of the crazy and hilarious Nunsense series-Meshuggah-Nuns!, directed by Jim Stout. The delightful and charming Once Upon a Mattress, directed by Lisa Walker, will entertain audiences in February. In March, the ’drop-dead’ funny comedy Dearly Departed, directed by Mark Atkisson, will have the audience rolling in the aisles. And in May, we’ll present the spectacular tap-dancing musical Crazy for You, directed by Andrew Morgan."

In addition to Footloose, Haschke said other special events coming up this season include A Holiday Extravaganza in December; an encore of Forever Plaid in late December, including a New Year’s Eve performance; and next June, Seussical hits the stage.

Another endeavor Peoria Players is launching is the "Take a Seat" campaign. "Our goal is to replace all of our theatre seats; they’re the original seats from this facility, which was built in 1957," Haschke said. "For $150, you can purchase a seat and have your name-or anyone that you would like to honor-printed on a brass plaque that will be attached to the back of the seat. We’re very excited about this project and hope to reach our goal by spring 2005."

Footloose takes place at 7:30 p.m., August 5, 6, and 7, and at 2:30, August 8. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $10 for students 18 and under. For more information, call 688-4473. AA!