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The theater was able to borrow gym costumes, along with cowboy hats and boots, from Missouri Baptist University.
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The actors of the Riverbend Youth Theatre.
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The actresses of the Riverbend Youth Theatre.
With many community theaters offering seasonal plays and musicals for people of all ages, it seemed time for a theater group catering solely to artistic youths of the Alton area.
At least, that was the thought process of Kristi Doering, Alison Neace and Julia and Michael Frazier, the minds behind the new Riverbend Youth Theatre. After months of planning and coordinating, and eventually rehearsing, the youth theater was brought to life through its premier production, “Footloose” the musical.
Doering, the theater’s director, has been the theater director at Alton High School for 14 years and leader of Thespian Troupe 126. She was looking for experience directing musicals, something she had never done before. It just so happened that the Fraziers and Neace, all seasoned theater members in their own right, wanted to put together a theater group and were looking for a venue to rehearse and perform, as well as a director.
The four have experience in performing and leading in the theater — along with director Doering, Julia Frazier is serving as assistant director, Michael Frazier as music director and Neace as voice coach — and have grown familiar with the youths’ need for a summer production that not only keeps them learning and acting, but is flexible around their already busy schedules.
“A lot of the kids weren’t able to do other local productions because of scheduling; a lot of them are in singing groups or band camp or smaller productions,” Michael Frazier said.
“So we just decided to start our own group,” Julia Frazier said.
The assembly of the four leaders seemed to work out perfectly, with each individual offering strength and experience in their particular area, Neace said.
The partnership with the new theater group and Alton High, the venue for rehearsals and performances, created a strong response within the 12- to 18-year-old population that was invited to be a part of “Footloose.”
“It was wonderful for them to be able to perform on the big stage,” Neace said. “Even though the high school students have been on a stage like that before, we also had students coming up to high school that had never performed on a full-size stage with the lights and sound. Everything was really exciting for them.”
Old acquaintances became great friends, and new inter-school friendships were made, too, as the Youth Theatre was opened up to more than just Alton School District. Jerseyville, Edwardsville, Marquette and Southwestern school districts were among those notified of the theater, and students from other schools are invited to be involved in coming years.
While making new friendships and having fun, the students also put in hard work. Actors know they must remember lines, cues and dances, but something these youths really had to work on was becoming their character, Michael Frazier said.
“It was amazing to see the difference between the first week of just reading the scripts to the performances in July where the students really embodied their characters,” he said.
Doering’s first assignment for the kids helped with this, as each part, whether a main role or a part in the ensemble, had a two-page character analysis to ensure they understood their character to help create their persona onstage.
Not only did the students work hard onstage, they labored behind the scenes, as well. Working in the pit, backstage, lights and sound and more, the youth theater was indeed made up of youths only.
“It was an all-youth production, the only one like that in the area,” Neace said. “We were very specific about that; we wanted it to be a youth theater.”
“Out of all of the shows I’ve done, I think this might’ve been my favorite because it was such a positive environment and it was a wonderful way to collaborate,” Julia said.
The leaders also wanted to keep a focus on the community aspect of the theater, so along with adults coming in to assist and volunteer their time, the students went out to get the community involved. Almost the whole cast performed a flash mob at Alton’s Farmers Market, afterward going up to the people watching to thank them and inform them of the performance dates.
“We’re a community theater, so actually being able to go out and do something so fun for the community like that ... it was huge,” Julia Frazier said.
Not only was the flash mob well-received, but the performances were, as well.
With it being the theater’s first show, the crew was only expecting some 100 people from July 22-24. The actual seat count for the three performances was 670.
The response was astounding. Since the first performance was the first priority and was a trial run of sorts, the leaders of the group don’t have any set plans as of now. There has been talk of there being smaller performances throughout the year, but if nothing else, another show next summer will be definite.
Michael Frazier spoke of the importance of youth theaters for the young actors and actresses being not only for the experience, but for pushing themselves to be great.
“Kids can usually play a kid’s role without too much trouble, but when you ask them to play a 40-year-old man who has lost a son, that really pushes the young actor and his peers for everyone’s acting ability,” he said.
“These are memories that they’re going to have for the rest of their lives. And if they’re wanting to go on and do theater for more than just in high school, they’re going to need as much experience as possible, which is what they’ll get from performing with a youth theater. For us to be able to be just a part of their experience and give them the opportunity to grow as actors and actresses is really meaningful,” Neace said.