‘It changes people’s lives’: Past and present Summer Youth Theatre participants gear up to commemorate program’s 50th anniversary

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Some of the performers in the cast of the Summer Youth Theatre 50th anniversary cabaret sing "Seasons of Love" from Rent during a rehearsal Sunday, May 21, 2023.

It’s a tall task to describe exactly how much the Summer Youth Theatre program means to the thousands of Lawrence kids past and present who have performed in it over the years.

That’s because they’ve all played a role in an arts staple whose history spans half a century. This year marks the milestone 50th anniversary since Summer Youth Theatre, now a program through the Lawrence Arts Center, was founded in 1973. In the years since, it’s been a constant avenue for young people from pre-K to college to perform in full-fledged productions and receive training from professionals in everything from costume and stage design to choreography and singing.

Since last week, alumni have been returning to Lawrence from across the country to commemorate the occasion the best way they know how — on the stage.

The Arts Center is hosting a reunion and cabaret performance Friday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on its main stage at 940 New Hampshire St., featuring 30 performers who range from members of the cast of Summer Youth Theatre’s very first show to youths who are active in the program today. It’s also a fundraiser for future Summer Youth Theatre seasons. Tickets start at $15 for a livestream viewing; a full list of ticket prices is available on the Arts Center website.

The night before the week’s flagship anniversary event, program alumni are also being invited to a pre-anniversary gathering to share stories and memories. That event is 8 to 10 p.m. Thursday, also at the main stage.

• • •

Some of the folks working to make the show happen spoke with the Journal-World during the past week about the program, which has become a fixture of Lawrence’s youth arts scene and shaped the careers of many successful professionals.

One of those individuals was Ric Averill, the Lawrence Arts Center’s artistic director of performing arts emeritus. Averill and his wife, Jeanne, were key figures in Summer Youth Theatre’s early years and beyond, so much so that Averill is directing Friday’s cabaret performance and the Arts Center has named a lifetime achievement award for program alumni in his honor: “The Averill.”

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Ric Averill, right, steps in to play a part during a rehearsal for the upcoming Summer Youth Theatre 50th anniversary cabaret. Averill, the Lawrence Arts Center’s artistic director of performing arts emeritus, played a key role in the early years of the program and is directing the commemorative performance.

The Averills started out serving as directors for some of the program’s early shows, and their children followed in their footsteps years later.

“The third year of its existence, my wife, Jeanne, was named the director, and she was the first of a long string of directors who basically shaped the program over periods of years,” Averill told the Journal-World.

Averill would go on to steward the program for decades, but he credits Lawrence Parks and Recreation for starting it all. The department’s former longtime director, Fred DeVictor, and a student at the University of Kansas were behind the first Summer Youth Theatre performance and set the stage for the five decades to come.

By the late 1980s, there was a different director for every show, providing opportunities for even more participants to learn and grow as they performed each summer at the Carnegie Building, the Arts Center’s home base until it moved into its current home in the early 2000s. What they cultivated was a platform for young people to learn what a professional production should look like.

“Our formula always was, from the very beginning, that students will learn the most by achieving the most professional possible production, given every circumstance,” Averill said.

That’s still the case today, according to the Arts Center’s director of performing arts, Elizabeth Sullivan, who also spoke with the Journal-World last week. There are always professional leaders — and sometimes even guest actors — brought on to help lead each show’s cast.

“I think that not talking down to children and treating them as professionals (as much as) possible is one of the gems of the legacy of why (the program’s) been around so long,” Sullivan added. “And that has not been typical of youth theater around the country; that is very rare that a youth theater company would be nonstop for 50 years, and that’s one of the reasons why.”

The result is a program that shepherds many a participant along to fruitful careers, whether as teachers or in the performing arts — like Spencer Lott, a program alumnus who today is a professional puppeteer and performer on “Sesame Street.”

It’s even been the common thread that’s started families, Sullivan said. That was the case for alumni Amanda Clark and Reid Börk, who met while participating in the program, had a “showmance” that became a marriage and went on to have three children who all went through the program as well.

photo by: Courtesy of Lawrence Arts Center

Amanda Clark and Reid Börk met as participants in the Summer Youth Theatre program and their “showmance” later became a marriage. The couple’s three children also have participated in the Lawrence Arts Center program.

“…(Summer Youth Theatre) is the heart of Lawrence, in a lot of ways for a lot of kids over a lot of years,” Sullivan said. “And if you ask what SYT means to people, it sounds crazy but it changes people’s lives.”

• • •

On Sunday, when most folks might have been preparing dinner, about a dozen of the performers slated to appear in Friday’s cabaret were in the thick of rehearsing. They spent about an hour doing practice runs of musical theater standards like “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from “Hairspray” and “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music.”

The group was a mix of current youth performers, folks who performed or directed early in Summer Youth Theatre’s history and others in between. That makes for a good representation of what people who attend the cabaret will see — something of a changing of the guard, as performers who have played the same roles during different generations share the stage.

photo by: Courtesy of Lawrence Arts Center

One of the early casts in the Summer Youth Theatre program is pictured. The program was founded in 1973 and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

At the end of rehearsal, some of the group shared their thoughts about the program’s 50th anniversary with the Journal-World. That included not only Jeanne Averill but also Laurie VanderPol, another former director and longtime teacher in the Blue Valley school district.

“I think for me, I look back at Summer Youth Theatre as really the training ground for me as a director,” VanderPol told the Journal-World. “The reason I had a successful high school program for 17 years in Kansas City was because I directed in Summer Youth Theatre, because it really taught me so many things.”

Things like time management, or what VanderPol called “fun management.” It taught her to come up with a rehearsal plan from the start, and to strike a balance between having fun and staying focused.

Diana Gish and Susan Newton, both members of Summer Youth Theatre’s inaugural cast, also shared their thoughts. Newton remembered the program as a “tight” community and a place for kids to belong. And Gish said she was “in awe” of the people who made it possible for the program to continue for 50 years.

“One thing I definitely remember (from the first year) was the thrill and the excitement every single day of going to rehearsal,” Gish said. “I hope that that’s still what the kids are feeling, but because of those who are devoted to this program, kids have the opportunity to have that thrill.”

The group also reminisced about forming friendships that endured whether they stayed in Lawrence or moved across the country to places like New York or California.

It was also, for many, a safe space.

“(It’s) a place that has always celebrated diversity,” VanderPol said. “It’s always tried to be gender-blind and colorblind in casting, for many years it’s been like that. And now Broadway’s catching on to that and I’m like ‘You guys are like 20, 30 years behind. We’ve been doing that for 40 years!’ I think it’s just such a safe place for kids.”

• • •

It seems that magic is still around, at least if you ask one current Summer Youth Theatre participant, Tilly Johnson, who is also in the cabaret cast.

“I’ve made so many friends through SYT that I’m still in contact with from like way back when, that even if I’m not doing shows with them now, we’re still connected and still have that bond,” Johnson said. “… By the end of the season, you’re such a tight-knit group that really there’s nothing like it.”

And the leaders guiding Summer Youth Theatre say there’s no plan for that to change anytime soon. Sullivan, the Arts Center’s director of performing arts, said she hopes the program will continue to be a home where participants feel they are included and part of a group.

From there, the next 50 years should be filled with further growth, she said, as long as Summer Youth Theatre holds true to its other key tenets of learning and professionalism.

“That is the immediate wish — to give kids that place of being a kid and playing and being with other kids, so they can do that and feel safe,” Sullivan said. “… If we keep those pillars, I think it will just keep growing and keep expanding.”


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