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StageCoach Theatre Company Rolls Through 20 Camps This Summer:

Giving Young Performers a Home in the Limelight

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson, StageCoach Theatre

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

The musical, “The School of Rock,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s re-imagining of the comedy film, ushers us into an oasis of self-expression where an under-qualified, rock-and-roll wanna-be becomes a substitute teacher at an exclusive private school, accidentally tapping into the unrealized aspirations of overscheduled, under-appreciated pre-teens who feel ram-rodded into their parents’ idea of perfection.

You can probably imagine how well the material resonated with the talented young actors of Loudoun County who mounted a performance of the show in June. The full list of production team, directors, choreographers, backstage crew and cast are here: https://bit.ly/SORprogram. But we’ll also offer a shout out to exceptional first weekend performances by Natalie Brown and Hannah Visser, the inspired casting and an impassioned performance of “If Only You Would Listen,” which raised goosebumps.

But what’s truly amazing – astounding even in the manner with which it recurs three or four times every summer – is that “School of Rock’s” cast of 21 kids with student directors, stage dressers and technical support, could go from zero to a half dozen remarkably polished performances in just two weeks of 7-hour weekdays of summer camp.

How is that possible?

Jerri Wiseman, executive producer of StageCoach Theatre Company (https://www.stagecoachtc.com/), which runs a professional theatre operation in addition to a burgeoning number of summer camps and after-school classes, says, “It’s because the teams that we get in are super talented. They all have to audition to get in” to the summer intensives, she explained. And, “they are in charge of their own rehearsal at home to learn their lines. They come in here to learn their blocking and their dancing, get up to speed on their singing, learn who is singing what parts and then they put it all together.”

This summer the theatre’s camps nearly tripled from last year – from 7 to 20: 11 camps for pre-K to age 12 ranging from everything from improv to musical theatre and cabarets for beginning to advanced actors – all besides three “intensive” play production camps for “School of Rock,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “9-5 The Musical.” All of the “intensive” public performances likely will sell out, so be sure to book your tickets for “9-5 the Musical” early; it runs from August 10-20, alongside the regular company’s production of “Disco is Dead,” which will run through August.  (See https://www.stagecoachtc.com/tickets/).

Jerri, whose entertainment industry career spans 20 years of community theatre, music and dance festivals and casts and crews of 200+ in many genres, appears bemused by our astonishment at the sheer amount of StageCoach’s creative output. “It’s what they do professionally,” she says of adult performers. She adds, “I mean, yeah, when you're talking a Broadway show they’re given more than two weeks, but they are putting on a professional quality show. The students in the musical intensives have nine full days of work, with guidance from an instrument coach who's come in to help those who don't play an instrument, enough to make it believable. We teach them a few chords on the guitar or how to hold the drumstick and what to hit. The music is going to be recorded because we don't really have the space in our theater for a full orchestra or a full band.”

It's obvious how much the support of volunteers matters to the StageCoach family. At its core, the theatre has three owners: Jerri; Terry Smith, the Artistic and Technical Director, and April Bridgeman, director of operations. Directors, choreographers and others work under contract by production, but students, area artists and parents always are pitching in to help create the sets and costumes and anything else that’s needed.

Less obvious, but a credit to the magnetic pull that StageCoach Theatre has created for young talent, is the degree to which students themselves have raised the bar for the company. Says Jerri, “We had an 8th grade student recommend that we change our lighting system. He was working with us on regular theater lights that we've had for eons when he said, ‘Why don't you switch to LEDs?’ The cost was so inexpensive that we agreed. Instantly we went from 8 incandescent lights to 22 LEDs, now with every color of the rainbow. Plus, you can design a show lighting program and save it. Do another and pull it up without having to reposition everything. We can do multiple shows at the same time. It’s all there.”

The theatre’s mentorship program allows it to train students on lighting and sound design and special effects, and offers even more real-world possibilities for instruction now that they’re live streaming several events. The single-story black-box theatre recently was allowed to expand to an upstairs yoga studio, one of the reasons for the rapid expansion of summer programs this year. “Now that we've got more room to work with, we are working more on teaching set building, prop making, costume making.... It's awesome. We have some great people leading these efforts. At the top of that list is Torie Dunlap, who recently came on board as our Education Administrator. She's been a true student magnet.”

Inclusion of younger talent has the professional program bursting at the seams. Auditions for a teen improv troupe the Banditos, an offshoot of the adult improv troupe, The StageCoach Bandits, were held in July to let teens spread their wings in the shadow of local professionals.

Young playwrights like Liliana Rossi (who goes by Lily), also are being invited to share their talents. Lily, just turned 18, has been writing plays since 8th grade, but the first she’s had professionally produced was “Into the Valley Below,” a play about the Jonestown Flood of 1889. StageCoach produced it this Spring.

The idea sprang from Lily’s drama teacher at Potomac Falls High School, Corinne Fox, who suggested it as a topic for Loudoun County’s local one-act competition and co-wrote the final version. Over several re-writes, the 30-minute play was performed at Potomac Falls High School’s 25th anniversary and again last summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The latter experience made enough of an impression that Lily will enroll in the University of Aberdeen, Scotland in the fall to study art history and history after which she’d like to become a museum curator.

StageCoach’s 90-minute version was produced by Torie Dunlap, StageCoach’s education coordinator, and directed by Lily and Evan Gorman. Lily, who loves history, found the story fascinating, particularly when framed by the dichotomy between the rich and the poor that existed in the Gilded Age, the event’s notoriety in its day, and the degree to which the story since has been largely forgotten. “I felt like it was an important story and one that deserves to be heard.”

Lily could see herself expanding her studies into the history of the theatre, particularly the influences of history on theatrical works, with an eye to bringing similar stories to light. For now, she’s working on getting “Into the Valley Below” published so it can be performed by other high schools, beginning with one in the town where the tragedy occurred.

If your own school-age children have been bitten by the theatre bug, they may have already found a home at StageCoach. As Jerri puts it, “We have some kids who have been here for years and years. They love the instructors and the program and the excitement of being part of the theatre.” Teens will play several parts in the October production of Zombie Prom. And insiders already are beside themselves with excitement for the September auditions for “Ride the Cyclone,” a play about six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir who take “one last ride on a rollercoaster that changes the course of each of their lives forever.” Said Jerri, “We’ve been getting more emails than we ever have from people wanting to be involved.” Performances will begin in January or February 2024.

More on after school programs will be out soon as well as a solicitation for more student-written scripts. But the StageCoach is moving fast, so the best way to stay in touch is to come to a show or text STAGECOACH to 22828 to subscribe to the newsletter.

And, welcome to the band.

“StageCoach has been an amazing experience. They have a great acting program to inspire young actors. They encourage growth and creativity; they believe in their actors no matter their age. They have brought up my confidence on stage and mentored me for many years. I enjoy every minute I am a part of a show at StageCoach!” -Daniel, 18

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