andrew kruse-ross | next stage | aug. 2019
For many students, the dog days of summer are synonymous with dusty baseball diamonds or baking tennis courts but for students in northeastern Wisconsin with a passion for theatre, summer is synonymous with the stage thanks to the St. Norbert College Next Stage program.
Next Stage offers an intensive theatrical program for youth desiring to elevate their repertoires, both on and around the stage, by presenting college-level instruction to high school performers — remarkably at no cost.
Next Stage participants often go on to pursue theatrical training in college, as is the case with actors Matthew Wautier and Georgia Mobley. The pair represents lead roles Jack Kelly and Katherine Plumber in the program's public performances of Disney's “Newsies" at the Walter Theatre. Both will be studying theatre at UW-Stevens Point in the fall and credit Next Stage with furthering their theatrical education.
“I wouldn't be the same performer I am today without it," says Mobley, a recent graduate of Wrightstown High School. “It's a lot different than the experience you get in high school … more focused … more professional."
Indeed that experience is by design as participants are charged with bringing a top-notch performance to audiences within a mere two-month timeframe. Meeting that time constraint is made all the more impressive when one considers that many participants haven't had the luxury of performing together in the past. The ever-growing program now features students from 20 area high schools, boasting representatives from Algoma to Oshkosh. If there's a single thread responsible for bringing it all together, it's a passion for the craft of theatrical performance.
“Everyone cares just as much as I do," says Wautier, a recent graduate of Green Bay Southwest High School. “Everyone has the same passion; they love theatre, they love coming together to make a show. Everyone is here to give their best. Everyone is here to work."
That's good news considering the complexity of the “Newsies" script. Always seeking to challenge students, director Teresa Schmidt and assistant director Andrea Hearden seek scripts that will challenge students both on and off the stage.
“When we talk about the education, yes, there's the theatre education — the singing, the acting, the dancing — but there's also a whole bunch of other education that goes on in the program.
“When we choose a show we always look at the educational component and ask, What is it in the story that our students can grow from?"says Hearden.
The script, although chronicling a history more than 100 years old, presents a number of themes relevant to the modern student: gender equality, responsible media reporting, the value of labor unions, etc.
Physically, the script is equally demanding. Schmidt explains, despite the show's popularity and having only recently been released for high school performances, the musical is a lot for a cast to take on.
“It's a huge dance show and that's scared some people away," she says.
To meet with the demands of the script, 10 of the newsies cast in the show have taken up gymnastics training with Air Force Gymnastics, such is the dedication of these youthful performers.
“That's the sort of commitment we're seeing," says Hearden.
Such commitment appears endemic within Next Stage as the directors report that when they've assigned homework, not one of the 40-member cast has failed to turn in an assignment.
As Wautier and Mobley explain, nobody wants to be that oneperson that doesn't do the assignment.
Interestingly, it isn't the instructors applying such pressure upon the students — there are, after all, no grades handed out to Next Stage participants — it's the students themselves applying the pressure.
“It's that passion that they all bring that I feel really feeds the program," says Hearden.
As Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski once said, “There are no small parts, only small actors," the same rings true with the Next Stage program.
Mobley knows firsthand of the importance roles both large and small can play. She's been with the program since the summer of her freshman year and despite taking a lead role in “Newsies," she was an ensemble member as recently as last summer. For her, every role has been an opportunity to mature as an actor.
“I remember coming in here after my freshman year and I really didn't know a lot about theatre," says Mobley. “But just watching other peoples' process on stage, I remember learning so much and wanting to do things like thisperson because they were taking it so seriously."
Primarily through word of mouth, Next Stage continues to draw the finest youth performers and stage crews that northeastern Wisconsin can provide. This year's cast of 40 was selected from 90 auditioning students. As Wautier puts it, any member in this year's cast is capable of “carrying an entire show" at their respective high schools.
It's here that one of the life lessons inherent in the Next Stage program becomes clear as respective “stars" are often called upon to perform in supporting roles; ultimately, the directors cast the actors that best fitwith the demands of the script in hand.
Mobley's years with Next Stage are case in point. Having spent three years landing “great, little small parts" in the ensemble, something in the script of “Newsies" made Mobley the clear choice for the role of Katherine, much to the delight of the directors.
“This was finally the right role and the right show for Georgia," says Hearden. “It had nothing to do with her not being able to do a role earlier, it just wasn't the right show."
“It's really exciting to see that growth. She worked really hard for this," adds Schmidt.
Equally rewarding are the accolades Next Stage participants are garnering on a national scale. Wautier was recognized with a 2019 Center Stage Award and went on to represent the program at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards — better know as the Jimmys — in New York City. He is the third Next Stage performer in as many years to be selected for this honor and the second from Southwest High School. There to support him during the initial award ceremony were his Next Stage companions.
“They bought their own tickets to see me," says Wautier.
It seems the bonds created at Next Stage transcend those of high school spirit. According to Schmidt, Next Stage students have taken to supporting one another during the school year by attending each other's shows, further strengthening the fabric of the arts within our community.
“I swear, we work together for two months and by the end we're like best friends," says Mobley. “Maybe we haven't seen each other in months but it's like nothing ever changed."
Catch the entire Next Stage cast and crew in action Aug. 8-11 at the Walter Theatre. Disney's “Newsies" The Broadway Musical features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman — Book by Harvey Fierstein and based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.
Tickets at snc.edu/tickets. Use promo code NSFRANKand receive $3 off each ticket.