Next Stage: Theatre program prepares youth for futures on any stage

Andrew Kruse-Ross

andrew kruse-ross | next stage | aug. 2018

Seeking to both entertain and to educate while upholding its storied tradition as a cultural center for Northeastern Wisconsin, St. Norbert College's Next Stage program manages to do all this while preparing area high school students for their next roles in life, whether they be on or off the stage.

Pulling from as many as 18 area high schools, the Next Stage program offers high school students college-level training and experience in musical theatre production and an opportunity for driven theatre students to interact with likeminded students all while under the supervision of college professors and industry professionals.

One need only look so far as performers Alejandro Malavet, Emily Holland and Paige Neumeyer to see the impact this program is making. All three are recent high school graduates — graduating from De Pere, Green Bay Southwest and Green Bay East respectively — and all three will be further pursuing theatre studies at various universities in the fall. None of them are shy about their feelings for Next Stage.

“If I hadn't done this program my sophomore year, I don't think I'd be going into theatre," says Alejandro Malavet, who'll soon be attending Northwestern University. He plays the lead role of Dr. Henry Jekyll in the Next Stage production of “Jekyll & Hyde the Musical," which runs at SNC's Walter Theatre August 8-12.

Taking nothing away from their respective high school programs, he and his castmates believe Next Stage offers learning opportunities beyond those available at the high school level.

Emily Holland, who plays the part of Lucy Harris in the upcoming production, says she came from a “well-developed" high school program but admits to not always feeling challenged during her high school productions. That isn't the case, however, with meeting the demands of her role as Lucy in “Jekyll & Hyde."

“Her emotions are easily relatable but her life is not," says Holland. “She's a prostitute, she's poor, she's abused … that's definitely been challenging. It's been interesting to really try to get into that mindset."

Paige Neumeyer, who plays Emma in the current production, agrees with Holland and says all her Next Stage roles have been challenging, whether they be in the ensemble or as a lead.

“[The production staff] put a lot more emphasis on the fact that everyone involved is instrumental in creating the story. They are always very adamant that we know where our story is coming from, that we're motivated, that we know why we're doing what we're doing."

There to guide them through such challenges are director Teresa Schmidt and choreographer Andrea Hearden. The pair collaborated with one another at Notre Dame Academy where Schmidt — now retired — served as choral director and Hearden is still employed as a science teacher.

“I always enjoyed working with high schoolers and was glad to be able to continue this in the summertime," says Schmidt. “I loved it then and I love it now."

For Hearden, her summer work with Next Stage offers a welcomed departure from her duties as a science teacher.

Both women have been with Next Stage since its inception four years ago. Over that span, they've witnessed not only the program's growth but the growth of its participants as well.

“The kids are taking in more and growing more, but we also do see personal things; the kids grow in ways and, of course, more are going on to perform at college … and that's exciting," says Schmidt.

Next Stage aspires to make an impact beyond its own stage and seeks to provide a spark in the student theatre communities of its participants.

“We hope that there's an impact as they take Next Stage ideas back to their own programs," says Hearden. “Ideas in terms of their hard work, their commitment or their friendships."

Such an impact may be evidenced in the honors Next Stage participants have been garnering. Two Next Stage participants have been recognized with Center Stage Awards: Felix Torrez in 2017 and the aforementioned Neumeyer in 2018. Both appeared in Next Stage productions of “Miss Saigon" (2016) and “Crazy for You" (2015) and went on to represent Northeastern Wisconsin as Jimmy Award nominees in New York City.

Awards aside, Schmidt and Hearden report that Next Stage students have taken to supporting their castmates by attending one another's high school productions, much to the delight of Next Stage faculty, as they feel doing so strengthens the learning of Next Stage students while further strengthening the culture of the arts in the community.

“[In the past] kids were involved in their own show and never saw other shows in the area," says Hearden. “Now when we go to shows, we almost always see Next Stage students supporting their Next Stage friends at different high schools and we're really excited about that — that support for performing arts across the board. It isn't just about your school; it's about the arts."

“When you're in high school and you do your own musicals, sometimes you don't get out to see what anyone else is doing," adds Schmidt. “You learn from that; you learn from seeing the strengths, the weaknesses … you don't always get that if you just see your own show."

Next Stage isn't only geared towards stage performers; the program offers the same elevated learning opportunities for student stage crews and orchestra students interested in honing their crafts under the eyes of industry professionals.

When stacked up against the expenses incurred with private lessons, it may be impossible to overstate the value of the Next Stage experience.

“We're really thrilled that St. Norbert College is making this program available to students free of charge," says Hearden. “This is arts education that isn't costing them what typical voice lessons and dance lessons and acting lessons would."

Whether students plan on pursuing stage careers after high school or not, Schmidt and Hearden agree the lessons learned via Next Stage are of value well outside the realm of the theatre.

“I think there are so many other things that they get prepared for," says Schmidt. “They get prepared for commitment and responsibility, so they may not go into theatre, everybody, but they learn that they have to do their job in that short amount of time because everyone is relying on them."

Adds Hearden, “It doesn't matter what you choose to do later in life, you're informed in your choices later by what you learn here."

Jekyll & Hyde

Catch more than 70 Next Stage students in action Aug. 8-12 at the Walter Theatre as they present “Jekyll & Hyde the Musical." Based on the gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, this musical brings the epic struggle between good and evil to life on stage and features a pop-rock score from Grammy and Tony-nominated Frank Wildhorn and Oscar and Grammy winner Leslie Bricusse.

For more information and a list of showtimes visit snc.edu/musictheatre.

Tickets at snc.edu/tickets.

For more information on Next Stage visit snc.edu/nextstage.

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