DECATUR – There are two reasons to see a performance by the Decatur Park District's youth theater program at the Decatur Civic Center this weekend.
One is the show itself. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is a family-friendly musical retelling of the biblical “coat of many colors” story, staged by actors who range from first grade to seniors in high school.
“If you like music, there’s probably a song or two that you’ll find interesting. There’s anywhere from country style to rock, and it’s very diverse,” said Ben Wilson, a senior at Decatur Christian School who plays Joseph. “There’s a lot of colors, as the name would imply. It’s a very bright and vivid show. All around, it’s pretty awesome.”
The show is double-cast, except for a few of the main roles, and actors have been rehearsing since January.
“But it didn’t even feel like working,” said Caleb Jefson, 17, who portrays Zebulon and the Pharoah in both casts. “You’re kind of just going and hanging out with your friends every weekend, but then you’ve got this thing you can show off, that you created together.”
The second reason to go: Ticket sales support a program that, according to its participants, fosters new friendships, builds confidence and prepares them not only for professional theater work, but other life experiences.
“As a senior in high school going to college interviews and stuff, I don’t feel quite as nervous about it because I’ve gotten used to talking in front of a huge audience,” said Emily Long, who plays one of the narrator parts. “So how intimidating can two people be, compared to as many people as can fit into this building?”
Those sentiments are exactly what Marie Jagger-Taylor, park district cultural arts manager, wants to hear. The goal of the Perform! program is to provide kids with a professional theater opportunity, complete with lights, sound, costumes and a big audience.
But it's also to teach them etiquette and respect. Older actors mentor the younger children, and the park district finds a place for everyone, Jagger-Taylor said.
“We really try to make everyone know that they matter and that being in a production, you’re part of something that’s bigger than yourself,” she said. “You’re there to help each other.”
Several of the older actors said the program creates opportunities for kids who have never acted before.
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“Like you could have literally no experience and do this program, and you turn out just fine,” said Brandon Kondritz, 12.
“You still get to show your singing abilities and your singing experiences, and also you actually get to have fun instead of just being at home, like, on your phone, or whatever kids do at home,” added Jaxson Mackling, 13.
One of the first-time actors this year is Colman Mahony, a third-grader at Maroa-Forsyth who plays George and Young Pharoah. Like many of the his castmates, Colman was already familiar with the Bible story, although he said he initially confused Joseph with Moses.
He's been having a good time so far: “Well, it’s fun, and you meet new people,” he said.
In describing the experience and their reasons for returning over multiple years, many actors offered unprompted compliments to Jagger-Taylor's leadership, particularly her patience with the younger children.
If someone is scared to say a line, for instance, she'll have two people say it together, said Malone Moretti, 17.
“She’s really accommodating,” Moretti said. “That helps people grow as an actor, to not just be put on the spot all of a sudden.”
For her part, Jagger-Taylor is quick to praise other people who helped make the show possible, including music director Christine Smith, along with volunteers who readily gave up their weekends to help the costumes come together. “It's a huge undertaking,” she said.
Many of the older kids have been acting for years in park district programs, which also include the Best of Summer Stock (BOSS) productions in the summer. Because participants go to lots of different schools, they often become friends with kids they might not have met otherwise.
“Kids who are introduced to this program (in first grade) … by the time they’re our age, the sky is limitless with where they’ve grown through this program,” said Victoria Morford, 18, a senior at Eisenhower High School. “It’s so cool. It’s such a great opportunity in our community. We hope it stays alive.”