• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Young artists to celebrate love of musical theater

Woodford Theatre Young Artists will celebrate their love for musical theater while participating in the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta next weekend, Jan. 15 to 17. Not only will this group of 24 middle and high school students from Woodford and nearby counties participate in musical theater workshops taught by Broadway professionals, they’ll get feedback – and possibly earn awards – for their 15-minute performance from “Into the Woods Jr.” Because of the astounding talent demonstrated by her troupe of young artists during their recent months together, Woodford Theatre’s education director, Vanessa Becker Weig, says, “I want to give them as much opportunity as I can.” Some of her Woodford Theatre Young Artists could be selected for JTF All-Stars, which performs at the Freddie G Awards Ceremony on the final night of the Junior Theater Festival. Others might audition for future Broadway Junior choreography DVD shoots or participate in a Tech Olympics to learn about the technical-side of musical theater. A director’s reception, dance party and spontaneous sing-a-longs are other highlights for participating teens. “I’m excited to go back,” says Woodford County High School sophomore McKenna Henehan, who participated with a different group at JTF three years ago. The 15-year-old describes the upcoming festival as an opportunity to hang out with other teens who, “are just like you.” Last year’s 10th anniversary festival brought together 101 student groups from 28 states, the District of Columbia, South Korea and Australia in what’s dubbed as “the world’s largest celebration of kids performing musical theater.” Becker Weig says she has taken groups to the annual Junior Theater Festival on two previous occasions. Both of her own children went on those trips, and she says they brought home some of the biggest memories of their lives. Learning from some of Broadway’s biggest names, including Megan Hilty, was one lasting memory. “I’ve seen pictures of other people with these very famous Broadway stars – and (now) they’re going to be watching me (performing onstage),” says WCHS freshman Chap Hollin. “It’s kind scary, but it’s what I love to do.” Chap and other Woodford Theatre Young Artists share a passion for being onstage. “I’ve been doing musical theater for as long as I can remember, and there’s nothing else like it,” says Jamie Bradley, a freshman at Dunbar High School in Lexington. She describes musical theater as “my home,” and says she especially loves using words, songs and dance to create a beautiful story while gaining self-confidence as a performer – and a person. Many of her confidence-building experiences happened at Woodford Theatre beginning as an 8- or 9-year-old. “It’s one of my favorite theaters,” explains Jamie, 14. “…It’s just an amazing environment.” Chap credits a great group of directors, choreographers and educators at Woodford Theatre for helping him become a better performer. So he’s understandably excited about building upon his skills as an actor, singer and dancer, while learning alongside 23 other Woodford Theatre Young Artists at the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta. “I want to come back (from this experience) closer, and ready to do bigger and better things,” says Chap, 14. “We’re such a close group at this point,” adds Jamie, “and so we’re going to go to JTF and we’re going to have a lot of fun together and we’re going to learn together. It’s going to be really great.” During one of her previous JTF experiences, Becker Weig took a class taught by Jeff Calhoun, best-known for directing “Newsies” on Broadway. So she’s understandably excited for Woodford County Middle School drama sponsor Alissa Sturgill, who will attend JTF director workshops at this year’s festival. As the education director at Woodford Theatre, Becker Weig says she wants to help prepare her students for whatever goals they choose to pursue in musical theater. She brings in an array of guest artists who have an expertise she does not possess so her students get “the best training they can possibly have.” “It’s my favorite part of what I do is watching these kids just get better and better and better and better,” says Becker Weig. She recently brought in a college student pursuing a dance career in musical theater to give her young artists an understanding of what it takes to earn a spot in a Broadway production or elsewhere. Chap, Jamie, McKenna and other Woodford Theatre Young Artists share a strong desire to perform on a Broadway stage someday. They also understand the long odds of that ever happening. Still, they cannot fathom life without musical theater. So audiences will likely see them performing – somewhere. “As long as I’m singing and dancing and acting,” says Jamie, “I’ll be happy...” Before leaving for Atlanta on Jan. 14, the Woodford Theatre Young Artists will give a send-off performance at 7:30 p.m. in the WCMS choir room. No admission is being charged, but donations will be accepted for the group’s showcase in April.

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