Lizzy Stone, a music theatre major at Western Michigan University, said her parents enrolled her at Portage Northern High School specifically for its esteemed drama program.
“My mom was raised on classical musicals,” Stone said. “She can’t sing, so she just raised me with musicals and movies. I started singing show tunes when I was four years old.”
At six, Stone was performing in shows at a drama camp where she later became a counselor at age 14. Her last year there, she directed shows starring elementary-age students.
But high school was where she began to refine her acting skills in productions with a high degree of professionalism. Stone said this was when she knew that acting as a career was something she wanted to pursue. She plans to move to New York City after graduating to “pursue the life of an actor” and also would like to incorporate teaching and directing into the mix.
Ashley Bowen, director of Portage Central High School’s Theatre Department, said she sees the benefit for her students in working with professionals to meet expectations they didn’t think were possible.
“We hire a professional choreographer and all of a sudden these kids, most of whom never took a dance class in their lives, are doing really professional stuff like tap dancing,” Bowen said. “Creating this level of performance really does support the kids and allows them to be even more successful than they thought possible.”
Joe Dely, who was a student performer at Portage Central, said his high-school acting experiences were a continuation of a passion that began for him as a child.
“I didn’t get serious about acting until high school,” he said. “There was a summer when I went to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and was in a production of Godspell and that was the first time I really sang on stage. I knew I could sing, but I didn’t really know until I was in that production.”
Now 27, Dely is a professional actor and director with What A Do Theatre in Springfield. He majored in music theatre at W.M.U., but said by this time, he was anxious to pursue an acting career which has now extended to directing.
Although some of Bowen’s former students are acting onstage, a number of them also are working behind the scenes on the technical side and in non-acting professions.
“Being involved in the arts prepares people to be better communicators and understand people from different backgrounds,” she said. “Many of these kids go on and become business people or lawyers and they’re fantastic communicators.”
She said the students are the reason so much time and effort is put into producing high-quality productions. However, community support is critical to the ongoing success of theater programs such as hers.
Bowen’s theater department does not have a budget from the school. Instead, proceeds from ticket sales go right back into funding the program.
“We hire a sound design company, choreographer and costumer,” she said. “We also have parents who volunteer to help and we have a teacher on staff to do our set design. We budget to hire a good number of adults to work on the production.
“As we began to receive more support and recognition, we were able to add to our productions.”
At Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, money is provided to purchase the rights to shows and musicals. However, the bulk of the theater program’s budget comes from ticket sales and advertisements in programs, said Julie Pelligrino, who serves as music director for musicals at the school.
“For us, funds have been increasing in the past couple of years, but we definitely don’t have the same amount of attendance as Portage does,” she said.
But there has been enough money generated through Loy Norrix productions to hire a choreographer, stage manager, sound system and set design professionals. Pelligrino said this is a long way from what her high-school acting experience looked like.
“The level of professionalism is definitely up and even more is expected of the students,” she said. “I think students appreciate being part of something that’s bigger than themselves. It takes guts to be onstage, but if you’re with your friends, it doesn’t feel like such a daunting task.
“It gives them a chance to show their peers and families what they can do and it helps them to come out of their shells.
Bowen, who is a product of Portage Northern’s drama program, said she was one of those shy kids who found a voice onstage. After an 11-year hiatus from professional acting, she will be performing in Sister Act at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. She said she can relate to her current students and those former students who are trying to make a career in the theater – one of whom is touring with The Sound of Music and several who are starring in musicals at Disneyworld.
“When you sign up to be in the theater world professionally, you don’t sign up to be in one place,” Bowen said.
Even so, Stone said she’s ready to try.
“I think you have to be comfortable in knowing that the majority of what goes into it is purely luck and drive and you have to be comfortable with rejection,” Stone said. “Multiple professors have said if you could be comfortable doing something else, do that. A lot of actors could do something else, but they’re most happy when they are performing.
“I don’t know very many people, only performers and artists, who would choose to live in a tiny apartment and eat pizza so they could follow their dreams.”