SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Peterson wouldn’t be the person he is today if it weren’t for his high school musical.
With only a student-directed version of “Alice in Wonderland” and a pared-down version of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” under his belt, Peterson, who grew up in Idaho and now lives in Saratoga Springs, was cast as the lead in his high school’s musical in the 1970s.
“I did those two things, which is practically nothing for a resume, and they plucked me out of nowhere to be the lead in a major production,” he said in an interview. “It gave me confidence for my LDS mission; it changed my life.”
The show’s director, a Broadway-trained professional, worked one-on-one with Peterson to improve his skills, especially in dance.
“He took me, this raw talent, and put me in the lead role, and I was a different human being when I was done four months later,” said Peterson, whose teenage daughter is now involved in local youth theater.
But as Peterson’s daughter has auditioned for productions, he has observed that many young performers have been singing and dancing from a young age and come to auditions already extremely qualified, which leads to an incredibly competitive atmosphere as they all try out for a handful of roles.
“It is competitive,” said Hannah Bayles, a voice teacher in Orem who specializes in musical theater. “There’s so much talent (in Utah), so it’s going to be harder to get cast here than anywhere else because we’ve got some talented kids.”
With so many kids, so few roles and so many hopes and dreams hanging in the balance, is the youth theater scene overly competitive? What cost — both financial and emotional — is it worth to get ahead? And how do kids navigate the competition and pressure and still enjoy the experience?
Breaking into the club
Jessie Ibrahim saw a problem in Utah's youth musical theater scene and decided to do something about it.
Ibrahim grew up in Spanish Fork and, like Peterson, feels her life was changed by participating in theater as a young person.
“Youth theater was my safe place,” she said.
But as she moved to the Salt Lake area, started her own family and began participating in youth theater as an organizer and a director, she experienced a very different climate — one where instead of allowing young people to use theater to learn and grow, it became about who’s the star and who knows — or is related to — who, with the same kids being cast in lead roles time and time again.
“It’s not community theater (when that happens),” she said. “It’s a theater built around that one child.”
After a few years of being unsatisfied with the youth theater scene, Ibrahim made the decision to start her own theater with her mom and a friend.
“We had our first little board meeting and set up our youth theater program so that we could start a program that we felt really reached the needs of all kids,” Ibrahim explained. “A big part of our youth theater is to have a place where all youth are able to have an experience (where) they are able to grow and they are able to gain self-esteem.”
Five years later and Ibrahim's South Valley Youth Theater continues to put kids first, specifically emphasizing the need to give as many kids as possible time in the spotlight.
One of SVYT’s foundational rules is to not cast youths in lead roles in back-to-back productions. The rule is more strictly enforced with girls than boys — far fewer boys audition for productions, so supply is lower — but Ibrahim believes it gives everyone a goal to keep in mind.
“I watch all the kids in my cast grow immensely in their talent because they’re always reaching for that higher place,” she said. “They know they’re not going to get stuck in one spot because they actually get the opportunity every single time that they could be the one that’s the lead.”
Bayles said she has also observed that there is a bit of an “elite club” in youth theater, but it may be the result of good intentions.
“The theaters around here, you become like family and so when youth theaters … continue to cast the same people, I don’t necessarily think it’s a malicious thing,” she said. “I think it’s just like, ‘Oh I love her. I’ve worked with her before,’ and so they’ll cast those people.”
Talent vs. teaching
Hale Center Theater Orem is known not only for the seven main stage productions performed each year but also for its five annual youth theater shows.
According to Ryan Radebaugh, director of HCTO’s theater school, he’s constantly receiving compliments from audience members who say the youth shows are almost as good as the theater’s main season.
“They’re so well made, and so often we don’t even think that we’re watching youth,” he said.
With such a high caliber of shows, HCTO’s youth program is one in which many hope to participate. Radebaugh said for each of the five shows, they’ll see 100-150 kids audition for about 30 roles.
“So there’s competition in the sense that it is hard to get into productions just because of the size,” he explained.
Sorting through the talent can be tricky, he said, but he and the other staff members always cast what's going to be best for the show.
“Usually with these productions, we’re about 50 percent new cast members,” he said. “We always get a lot of kids that return because they love it and love the experience, but we try to rotate around as much as we can.”
Balancing the need to find kids who are ready to perform with the opportunity to help kids grow and develop can be difficult, Radebaugh said. Sometimes he’ll have kids audition who have no previous acting experience but have the skills necessary to fit a certain part. Conversely, others will audition multiple times but aren’t ever quite right for the role.
“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard as an adult to be turned down and to not get a part or to be turned down in a relationship or anything like that, and so for kids who are still developing those feelings and trying to learn and understand what they mean, it can be hard.”
He’ll often recommend kids that he can’t cast in a production to take a few classes from HCTO to help them get additional experience under their belts. But regardless of whether they take him up on the recommendation, Radebaugh said he does his best to build up every young actor or actress that enters the door.
“I’ve had a lot of one-on-one conversations with kids and their parents explaining the decisions and helping them see it’s never a personal thing,” he said. “It’s always something to continue to go for and push yourself and learn more and you’ll get there.”
Ibrahim said striking the balance between showcasing natural talent and nurturing new talent can be a challenge at SVYT as well. While they do enforce their rule of not casting the same people as leads in back to back productions, she said they do need kids to have the basic skills required for the part. She told of one young man who auditioned for a part who was “pretty good at lines” but his singing was not up to par, so he initially participated in non-singing roles.
“He spent that summer working really hard (on his singing) and ended up getting the lead part in ‘Pirates of Penzance,’” she said, a role that required a significant amount of singing. “That’s just one of many stories where (a) child has just become so amazing but if you don’t give them the opportunity, you can’t find out what they can become.”
To differentiate themselves from the competition, many kids enroll in dancing, acting and singing classes beyond the plays and musicals themselves.
Bayles, a certified voice teacher with the Institute for Vocal Advancement, said most of her young students come to her specifically to get help as they audition for parts in musicals.
“The more talent that shows up for these auditions, the more training people go out and get to become more talented,” she said. “Every year it seems like it becomes harder and harder to get cast in these shows.”
Costs start with base tuition and participation fees, which vary by theater and by program intensity, with different costs for beginner classes and advanced classes.
Youth Theatre at the U, for example, offers 10-week classes for $140-$162 depending on a participant’s age, which equals out to about $60 a month. By contrast, participants in the youth theater’s audition-only conservatory are required to pay $198 annually in tuition, $295 for a trip to the Utah Shakespeare Festival and $920 for a trip to Musical Theatre Competition of America in California. Split into eight monthly payments, and that’s $176.63 a month, according to the program’s website. The conservatory program does include “college-level training in voice, movement, musical theatre, improvisation and Shakespeare,” according to the website, but if a student felt inclined to pursue any additional training through dance lessons or a private voice teacher, monthly training costs increase.
Bayles, for example, charges $180-$320 per month for her vocal training, depending on the length of the weekly lesson (either 30, 45 or 60 minutes).
Add on costume and other fees, and monthly participation costs start to resemble a car payment.
Radebaugh said at HCTO, they try to do their research to make sure their program costs are fair for the number of training hours included and frequently compare their costs to other programs in the area to self-check. He noted that in general, Utah’s youth theater tuition fees are much more affordable than other states for the amount of training provided, and that HCTO offers scholarships for students who want to participate but are not able to pay for the program.
Although Marla Hintze of West Jordan knows auditioning for a part in a theater production can be competitive, she also knows from watching her children’s experiences with theater that it can have a positive impact.
Six of her seven children participated in the theater program at West Jordan High School, getting cast as leads, supporting characters and ensemble members.
“We had a wonderful experience,” she said. “Sometimes we had tears when they didn’t get that one role, but it didn’t kill them. They figured out how to get through, which is a life skill too, to learn to get through disappointment.”
One instance in particular where she saw the positive impact of theater was when her daughter Dinah was cast as Beth in the musical theater class production of “Little Women.” As the performance approached, Dinah’s counterpart lost her voice and knew she wouldn’t be able to perform, despite the hard work she had put into preparing. But instead of seizing the opportunity to shine every night, Dinah worked with the teacher to create a plan: On the nights Dinah’s counterpart was performing, Dinah dressed in black and stood slightly offstage and sang and spoke all of Beth’s lines while her counterpart mouthed the words and acted.
“That brought a real bond between those girls instead of competitiveness because they depended on each other,” Hintze said, noting that it was just one example of the many learning opportunities her children had while participating in theater. “They’ve gained confidence and they’ve also learned that you can’t just be the star. There has to be a supporting cast, and they’ve learned teamwork.”
Bayles recognizes that theater’s competitive nature has the potential for two outcomes: It can create divas, or it can teach the life skills of listening and humility.
“(Kids) kind of become little adults when they’re onstage in rehearsals and stuff working with directors,” she said. “I also think it can — it doesn’t always — instill a sense of humility in performers when they don’t get cast in everything. And then when they do get cast in something, there’s more gratitude and humility there.”
Having a feeling of gratitude was the case for 13-year-old Maddie Stensrud recently when she auditioned for a production of “The Little Mermaid Jr.” at Midvale Main Street Theatre.
“I really wanted to be Ursula, so when I tried out, I was trying to be really confident,” she said.
She said she was one of the youngest participants to receive a callback, and although she ultimately was cast as Arista, one of Ariel’s sisters, she was still honored to have received a callback.
“There was a lot of really good people so I knew I probably wouldn’t get it but I’d still be happy,” she said.
Sixteen-year-old Abigail Edwards, who has been participating in theater since she was 5, including performing in productions at Hale Centre Theatre and Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, also said she’s had positive experiences despite the competitiveness of youth theater.
Although she said auditioning and performing can be difficult at times — especially if a young actor or actress is double-cast and thinks the double does a better job — she’s had an overall positive experience. She recently moved to North Logan from Bountiful with her family, and said her participation in theater has helped her make friends at her new school.
“It’s really good socially,” she said, adding that she’s also appreciated the opportunity to learn new skills. “Performing in a show is always so fulfilling. You’re putting on something magical.”
Bridges Sayers, a psychology student at John Carroll University in Ohio and former SVYT participant, saw many sides of the youth theater world as a performer, staff member and student director and said youth theater can be competitive — even cutthroat — or it can be a friendly, growing experience. It all boils down to what a participant hopes to get out of it, she said.
“I think the biggest difference is how (young actors and actresses) view the role of theater in a person’s life,” she said.
If a youth is putting a lot of stock into theater, perhaps looking at it as a potential career path or as a chance to “show off,” Sayers said competitiveness tends to kick into high gear, whereas if it’s viewed as a “growing experience,” theater can instead be an opportunity to “learn more about yourself.”
Bayles encourages her students to consider their intentions as they go into auditions and emphasizes the good that can come from every part, no matter how big or small.
“Why are you doing this? Are you doing it just for applause? Or are you doing it because you love it and it feels so good?” she said. “In that case, let’s be in the ensemble. Being in the ensemble is so great.”1 comment on this story
The reality is, Bayles said, that theater is naturally competitive, for kids and adults alike, but competitive doesn’t have to equal negative.
“I really think it comes down to helping our kids embrace it healthily and helping them understand before they even go to their first audition, ‘We’re doing this for fun, but fingers crossed,’ and letting every rejection and every casting be a learning opportunity,” she said. “This theater community can be so much fun, or it can be a nightmare depending on how you look at it.”