Summer Youth Theater a hit with Lawrence kids

This summer is 20-year-old Eric Palmquist’s 10th year of participating in the Lawrence Arts Center’s Summer Youth Theater program.

When he first began spending his summer onstage, he had never acted and was doing it because his parents signed him up. Now, he’s not a participant but an employee, working as a technical instructor and teaching the students who are spending their summers doing what he fell in love with 10 years ago.

“I was 10 and it was the first time I ever stood onstage with a script in my hand,” Palmquist said. “I just remember there was something just so new and exhilarating about it.”

Palmquist isn’t the only participant to get a glow on his face when he talks about the Summer Youth Theater. High school students participating in the upcoming production of “Hairspray” say that so far this has been one of the best summers of their lives.

“(Being into theater) you’re the kind of person who’s excited all the time, and when you’re here everyone is that way; it makes you feel more normal,” said Dakota Collins, who is playing one of the Dynamite girls in the show.

Summer Youth Theater

The Lawrence Arts Center’s Summer Youth Theater hosts four productions every summer: two musicals and two dramas. Each age group — third through eighth grade and grades nine through 12 — puts on one show of each genre.

Auditions for Summer Youth Theater take place about one month prior to the program beginning. This summer there are about 250 participants. After enrolling in the program, they began rehearsing by the end of May.

The younger students rehearse for four hours over a three-week period to prepare their shows. The high school students practice for six hours Monday through Thursday and three hours on Friday for four weeks, which makes their rehearsals feel more like a boot camp.

“It’s very much a typical theater schedule similar to a professional schedule,” said Susan Tate, executive director of the Arts Center.

When students aren’t rehearsing, they’re working with drama leaders and learning about all aspects of theater: the technical elements, costumes, dancing and enunciation.

The center brings in teachers, directors and actors to help give the children a truly education experience. Professional actors are frequently added to shows as well to not only create a better experience for the audience but also teach the participants by giving them someone to look up to and learn through observation.

“Every program has a lesson plan,” said Ric Averill, artistic director of performing arts. “It’s a part of our ongoing commitment to a sequential curriculum for all art forms.”

Picking the perfect show

Part of the lesson plans include teaching the students about the history that goes along with the play or musical they are performing. Tate said that because the shows aren’t through a school, they are able to put on productions with more mature content. This is some of how the program trains students for the professional acting world.

“One of the things that’s so interesting is they’re not just learning lines but confronting and discussing content,” Tate said.

Tate said that she and Averill try to choose shows that have both artistic and educational merit.

The search for a show begins by what Tate and Averill find interesting thematically or artistically. Many of the shows are recent Broadway hits that have been released for local theaters to do, which is what help drive students to become involved. If they’ve seen a show, it will likely pique their interest.

“Often times we curate the season to go along with something specific or often we’ll find a theme to follow,” Averill said.

After finding that theme, it’s just a matter of finding other shows that fit. In the past there’s been a summer of star-crossed lovers featuring “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Next year will be a British invasion theme with one of the productions being “Spamalot.”

This year’s theme focuses on history, with younger theater group performing “The Complete History of Kansas in Sixty Minutes” and the high school performance of “Hairspray,” which explores the history or race and segregation in the United States.

“They’ll entertain the audience, but they’ll also come out of the show knowing a whole lot about the history of Kansas,” Averill said. “We look for things that are challenging; we’re looking to train people and give them a clear understanding of the content.”

Palmquist said his experience with the Summer Youth Theater has given him some of his best friends and memories and has led him to what he hopes is a career in theater, which is his major at Kansas University.

“We’re doing the same kind of shows amateur and professional theaters put on and you learn what it takes to put on a real production,” Palmquist said. “Most of what I learned about theater, I learned here.”

The Summer Youth Theater participants will perform “The Complete History of Kansas in Sixty Minutes” on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and “Hairspray” on July 25, 26, 27 and 28. Tickets cost $7.50-$10. To learn more about the upcoming productions or the Summer Youth Theater, visit the Lawrence Arts Center’s website,