Faithbased youth theater stages plays by families, for families By Mandy Burrellphoto courtesy of Vicki Elbrecht The cast of "The Little Mermaid" on the Christian Arts Auditorium stage in Zion.
Janet Stanczak isn’t your stereotypical stage mom. "I am not one who likes the limelight," says Stanczak. In fact, aside from make-believe and dress-up, she had no theater experience prior to getting her two sons involved in Lake County’s Christian Youth Theater/Christian Community Theatre, a not-for-profit theater arts education and performance program for children 6 to 18.
"The boys always enjoyed pretending and putting on plays for us at home," she says. "So we heard about CYT, went to a few productions and thought, ‘My goodness, this would be just fabulous because this is just like real theater.’ "
A unique set-up In one respect, Stanczak is right. The troupe performs to audiences of thousands three times a year and takes pride in its attention to detail. The most recent performance, "Beauty and the Beast," featured fanciful costumes, such as a gardener with scissors for hands, and impressive special effects, including a light-up rose for Belle and a spinning castle turret operated by the kids.
On the other hand, Chicago CYT is much different from other local theater groups. For one thing, it’s Illinois’ largest performance theater troupe by children, for children, with some 800 participants in every 10-week session. Besides the Lake County group, Chicago CYT also has theater groups in McHenry, Kane and northwest Cook counties under its umbrella.
And, though most CYT productions do not carry overtly religious themes and children of all faiths can-and do-participate, the theater group is faith-based.
"We are not a church, so we don’t do all the things that churches do," says Justin Parks, Chicago CYT executive artistic director. There are prayers before rehearsals and performances, but they are voluntary.
Christian Youth Theater started in San Diego, Calif., as a Christian ministry. It set up its first satellite program in Chicago six years ago when an involved family moved from California to the Chicago suburbs. The family missed CYT and began corresponding with Parks, who taught their kids in San Diego’s CYT program.
"They said, ‘We can’t offer you any money, and we don’t have a job, and we can’t offer you a place to live,’ " Parks says with a laugh. "But this was something I felt called to do." So Parks relocated to Chicago to start a theater ministry here. Within six months of his move, nearly 200 children and their families had joined the troupe. Now Parks is one of six full-time paid employees of Chicago’s CYT.
The main reason CYT attracts so many, says Parks, is that the program actually trains kids in dramatics before they take the stage. Ten-week educational sessions taught by paid professionals focus on every aspect of theater, from perfecting accents and dialects to performing improv and even backstage know-how.
By and for families Cathy Burnside didn’t consider herself a strong Christian before her daughter joined four years ago, but now she does-though, she says, not because people pressured her.
"We just really try hard to reflect ... Christian values," says Burnside of the role-model approach to ministry. "If [Christianity] is something a person discovers along the way, great. If not, that’s fine, too." Burnside’s active participation in CYT highlights an interesting aspect of the troupe: Every CYT production is not just by children, for children. It’s also by families, for families. If a child gets involved, one parent must commit to at least 50 hours of building sets, sewing costumes or handling tickets.
Stanczak became the troupe’s makeup maven. "To tell you the truth, at first I was a little bit nervous about it," Stanczak admits. "But my husband coaches baseball, and this is another thing they’re [her sons] into, so we just jumped in with both feet."
Stanczak has even taken a few professional makeup classes to train her eye for the stage. At the dress rehearsal less than 24 hours before opening night for "Beauty and the Beast," Stanczak took notes to remind herself to make minor improvements the next night, when the cast of 90 kids from across Lake County performed to a packed house at the College of Lake County Performing Arts Center Christian Mainstage Theatre in Grayslake.
Friendships and leadership Parent involvement keeps production costs low without sacrificing quality. More important, parents get to spend personal time with their children, with their children’s friends, and with other parents.
"This was a place where I could make friends, too," says Burnside. "At school or with the park district, your kids do a lot of things by themselves. Here, you really get a chance to work with kids and parents who share your values and want to be involved in their kids’ lives."
Stephanie Hammonds, who, like many of Chicago CYT’s 100 or so teachers, is a professional actress and director herself, says, "Even among the parents you don’t see the competition. So often in theater groups you find a lot of competition, a lot of jealousy and there are cliques. You don’t see that here. The kids support each other and help each other through it."
Carmel High School student and CYT band member Robin Donegan, 16, agrees. "I tried out for the first play in sixth grade, and that was fun, but the stage really wasn’t for me," he says. His friends encouraged him to play in the band. "No matter what I’m wearing or what I look like, the kids here are accepting," he adds.
An added bonus is that kids who stick with the program become leaders in future productions during which an older cast member is teamed up with a younger one to provide encouragement and guidance throughout the six-week rehearsal period. So kids, as well as parents, serve as role models. "They learn that theater is not a self-serving thing. It’s about using the gifts that God gave you and always doing your best," says Parks.
To learn more about upcoming CYT classes and productions, visit www.cytchicago.org or call (847) 516-2298. The Lake County group’s next production, "Godspell," will run from May 13-23 at the Christian Arts Auditorium in Zion.
Mandy Burrell is a writer in Chicago.
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