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Civic Theatre's summer program showcases young talent

The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's Summer Repertory Theatre program helps its students grow and discover new passions.
Students run through a "Footloose" dance number.

Students run through a "Footloose" dance number. /Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

A pair of small-town teens learn who they are as they fight to hold onto the thing they love most. A young girl uses the beauty and benevolence of her imagination to stay above-water in a world of struggle.  

This week marks the culmination of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s annual Summer Repertory Theatre (SRT) Program. In this unique summer intensive, local students aged thirteen and up work rigorously to develop two shows, performing in one, and serving as the technical crew in the other. 

Both of this years’ shows--Footloose and A Little Princess, presented characters who come into their own on stage--so too did the actors portraying them. 

“This program is so valuable for them,” said Andrew Schneider, director of Footloose. Not only do the kids perform in a show, but they also design sets, costumes, lights, and props. So they get to see both sides of the theatre in one experience.”

This process represents a big step for theatre students, all going through their early theatre years with a passion for performance but few realizing the full range of opportunities that passion can provide them. One of the primary goals of SRT is to open kids up to those opportunities, and help them finds the ones they might enjoy. 

“Everyone wants to be an actor, but we all know that the reality is not everyone’s going to be,” said Jaime Heeringa, Costume Designer for Princess. “What’s so great is that sometimes, in this program, [students] hit upon something else they love.”

The promise of these discoveries is real, and proven. Schneider, for example, enrolled in his first acting class at the theatre in 1990. Now, twenty five years later, he’s directing kids starting on their own theatre journeys. This fact owes no small part to SRT.

“I always loved to perform,” said Schneider. “I think the whole reason I got so into stage management was my participation in this program, because I had to be immersed in backstage work.”

Whether students remain on the performers’ track or commit to a more technical specialty, their SRT experience places them in an environment that demonstrates and polishes the skills they’ll need to advance their careers. To start, they are surrounded by professionals who serve as living proof. For Footloose, Schneider made the decision to cast professionals (playing the show’s adult characters) alongside its teenaged stars. 

“It really makes it feel real,” said Brandon Chu, playing Chuck. “And it makes the shows so much better.” 

For both shows, Civic’s full-time, professional staff aided in and oversaw technical production. Students used the same tools and materials available to the staffers who create the rest of the theatre’s productions. Staff who do prominent work have an impact on both shows. Princess was written and directed by Allyson Paris (as an adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett book), who took a step in her career when she assumed the role of the theatre’s Associate Director this month. 

“To be able to work with somebody as professional as [Paris] is a very good learning experience for anyone wanting to go into this type of profession,” said Anna Peerbolt, playing Becky in Princess. Anna’s sister, Brenna, also wants to pursue professional theatre, and stars alongside her. 

“I was in set building last year and I’m in costumes now,” said Brenna Peerbolt. “It’s really cool to see how much there is to do.”

The audiences were large, as they usually are; this is an important component of the experience. Combining large audiences with a very short time frame for production gives the experience a sense of pressure unmistakably similar to the real thing. 

“A lot of  people come, and pay for their tickets, so you really have to do a good job,” said Meghan Johns, who portrayed Ariel in Footloose. 

The draws to attend are varied and many. For one, the shows themselves are classics, each in their own way. 

“[A Little Princess] Is an iconic story,” said Brenna Peerbolt. 

But an SRT show is more than another well-executed production from the Civic Theatre. It is a different experience, one in which the growth of the people on stage mirrors the growth of their characters. To see that is exciting in itself. 

“Young people can come and see these talented kids on stage, and see what they could be doing in the future,” said Paris. 

When I talked to the cast the week before their preparation came to fruition, the mood was all excitement. 

“We’ve worked really hard,” said Chu. “I think it’ll turn out fantastic.” 


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