For Audrey Johnson, proof of the value of children’s theater came when her daughter, Haley — normally a soft-spoken, reserved girl — got up to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in front of her entire elementary school.
"The teachers were like, ‘Is that really your shy child?’ " Johnson says, laughing. "People were stunned."
That was when Haley was 8 and had already put in two years at the Desert Stages Children’s Theatre (now the Scottsdale Desert Stages Children’s Theatre). At 10, Haley has done 22 productions and has become a veteran of sorts at the theater, where Johnson now volunteers as a parent coordinator and her husband volunteers as a vocal coach.
"It’s become a whole family affair," Johnson says.
Over the years, mom has seen Haley grow from ensemble player into the kind of young actress who she hopes can tackle more leading roles in a few years. For now, though, she’s glad to see Haley making many of her best friends in the theater.
"The thing is, this is her team sport," Johnson says. "This is her soccer. But her team is (ages) 3 to 19. She’s getting role models who are older and mentoring those who are younger. You can’t get that with a soccer team."
In the face of shrinking arts budgets in public schools, more parents are turning to theater programs outside of school to supplement their children’s arts education and provide an enriching after-school experience for them. In turn, it’s a boon for the theaters — many of which support their adult show seasons with income from their youth programs.
The artistic directors from the top six youth theaters in the Valley say several decisions should affect which one you get your child involved in — from how far and how often you’re willing to drive for rehearsals to how much you’re willing to spend to support the program.
But foremost, directors say, is whether the company’s style — from more experimental work to traditional favorites, from straight plays to musicals — fits with what your child would like to do. The Valley offers all kinds to choose from:
EAST VALLEY CHILDREN’S THEATRE
Plays at Stapley Junior High School in Mesa; call (480) 756-3828 or visit
Currently: Eighth season includes "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (today-Oct. 3), "The Snow Faerie" (Feb. 10-20) and "The Magic Lamp of Aladdin" (June 23-26).
Age range: 8 to 18
Budget: $15,000 per show
Rehearsal schedule: Five to six weeks, typically 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, some Saturday mornings.
Style: "We concentrate on fairy tales, classic children’s theater and original productions, which we do every year," says artistic director Karen Rolston.
Cost to parents: No cost, save for shoes if costume department cannot find appropriate matches.
Additional classes: Spring and fall classes on Saturdays, $20-$30. A traveling troupe, EVCT Express, performs newly created pieces across the East Valley.
Our take: EVCT is one of the Valley’s spunkier youth companies, and a focus on fairy tales and originals makes for refreshing alternatives to yet another show of "Annie." And watch out for the program as it moves into the new Mesa Arts Center when it opens in fall 2005.
FOUNTAIN HILLS YOUTH THEATER
Performances and rehearsals at Fountain Hills Community Theater. Call (480) 837-9661 or visit www.fountainhillstheate.com.
Currently: Third dedicated season includes "Narnia" (Oct. 1-17), "The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood" (Nov. 12-28), "Pau$e for the Clau$e" (Dec. 3-19), "Mumbletypeg" (Feb. 25-March 13) and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (April 8-24).
Age range: 6 to 19
Budget: $10,000 per show Rehearsal schedule: Six to seven weeks, 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, some weekend days.
Style: Says artistic director Ross Collins, "I borrow from the Cub Scouts term: If it ain’t for the kids, it’s for the birds."
The theater company even allows youth to help direct some shows, and upcoming "Mumbletypeg" is an original musical by Valley composer and actor Miciah Dodge.
Cost to parents: Parents are asked to donate to the theater, though contributing is not mandatory. "We’d prefer the parents help out, like by sewing costumes," Collins says, laughing. Children are given two tickets to the productions in which they appear.
Additional classes: Theater offers two summer camps (one for 7- to 12-year-olds, another for teens, with the option of an extra-cost trip to New York) at $150-$200 and four sessions of workshops in fall and spring at $50-$80.
Our take: Fountain Hills Youth Theater is a great choice for community youth theater, and its productions never fail to be adorable, even for those of us without children in the shows.
GREASEPAINT SCOTTSDALE YOUTHEATRE
Performances at Stagebrush Theatre in Scottsdale; call (480) 990-7405 or visit
Currently: Greasepaint’s 21st season includes "The Wizard of Oz" (Oct. 8-24), "Babes in Toyland" (Dec. 3-19), "Footloose" (Feb. 4-20) and "The King and I" (April 1-17).
Age range: 6 to 18
Budget: Less than $100,000 annually Rehearsal schedule: 4 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, four to five weeks before show opening.
Style: "We’re more about the process, and the kids coming here to learn a craft and meet kids that are interested in things other kids are interested in," says artistic director Maureen Dias. Cost to parents: None, though donations are accepted.
Additional classes: A fall break camp, Oct. 11-15, is $175, while workshops in vocal and dance work are $100 for four two-hour Saturday sessions.
Our take: Somewhat out-of-the-way community theater’s youth program doesn’t have the budget, polish or experimentation of Scottsdale Desert Stages’ program, but is a good choice for well-loved musicals.
Part of the Mesa Arts and Cultural Division; call (480) 644-2902 or
Currently: Without a regular venue — the new Mesa Arts Center will be its home for a regular season in fall 2005 — the 26-year-old Mesa Youtheatre has switched to performing "The Sun and the Moon" at alternate venues such as Fiesta Mall (Oct. 16) and Superstition Springs Center (Oct. 23) and in-school shows.
Age range: 13 to adult
Budget: $10,000 per show Rehearsal schedule: During regular season, 7 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays for six to eight weeks.
Style: "We like to do literature-based work, work that’s about topics that are important to young people, from the serious to the silly," says performing arts supervisor Jennifer Akridge.
Cost to parents: Free
Additional classes: Mesa Youtheatre piggybacks on the bevy of classes offered through the Mesa Arts Center, including multiweek preschool courses and programs in drama, music, dance and visual arts ($20 to $70).
Our take: Last season’s "Anastasia Krupnik" was a delight from out of left field; teenage focus for youth program performers provides a unique niche. Wait for the theater program to start up at the new MAC.
SCOTTSDALE DESERT STAGES CHILDREN’S THEATRE
Rehearses and performs at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre; call (480) 483-1664 or visit www.desertstages.com.
Currently: 10th season is still in development; includes "The Wiz" (Oct. 1-Nov. 7) and "Annie Jr." (Nov. 20-Dec. 22).
Age range: 3 to 19
Budget: $15,000 per show
Rehearsal schedule: Five- to six-week rehearsals, four to eight hours per week, leading to intensive "tech week" before show. More intense than most youth theaters.
Style: "We put a thousand kids a year on stage, which nobody does, which is a pretty amazing thing," says artistic director Gerry Cullity. Desert Stages emphasizes the lesson of "loving your work and feeling proud."
Cost to parents: Controversial matters for some, Desert Stages asks parents to sell 15 tickets (at $12 each) per production in which their children perform, then Cullity often double- or triple-casts productions to allow more young actors to get stage time. Parents also form a base of volunteers who help with costuming, set building and more.
Additional classes: Classes from improvisation to auditioning, at $175 for a 16-hour, eight-week class.
Our take: Some parents have grumbled about pressures to sell tickets and volunteer, but those who stick with the organization sing its praises — and point to the strong young talents (including Jessica Godber, who now performs at the theater’s adult cabaret show, "I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change") that are fostered and nurtured.
VALLEY YOUTH THEATRE
Rehearses and performs at Valley Youth Theatre in central Phoenix; call (602) 253-8188 or visit www.vyt.org.
Currently: Sixteenth season includes "Into the Woods" (Oct. 15-31), "A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail" (Dec. 3-23), "Sleeping Beauty" (Jan. 21-Feb. 6), "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (March 4-20), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (April 22-May 9) and "The Wizard of Oz" (at the Herberger Theater Center, June 10-26).
Age range: 7-19
Budget: $1.3 million annually
Rehearsal schedule: 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 10 to 6 p.m. Saturdays, six weeks prior to show
Style: "We’re certainly not doing this for ourselves," says producing artistic director Bobb Cooper. "We want to have an audience. There are far too many companies here that do it for themselves. We have to be interested in what our audiences want to see."
Cost to parents: Potential cost for shoes or tights.
Additional classes: A conservatory program offers many classes at $145-$175. Our take: The highest-budgeted youth company in the Valley, it’s more than an offshoot of an adult playhouse, and a high value is placed on production quality and professionalism. Intense rehearsal schedule and central Phoenix location might be prohibitive for some East Valley residents, though many E.V. parents make the sacrifice.