Maggie Scanlon, a freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth, returned to the Blue Water Theatre to help out during her winter break. The Wayzata-based youth theater company was a second home in middle and high school.
Now she’s juggling the roles of stage manager, actor and set designer as the theater troupe rehearses the musical thriller “Jekyll & Hyde.”
Scanlon, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in stage management, credits Blue Water for inspiring her to take that path.
It’s just one example of how the nonprofit theater company has had a meaningful impact on its participants since it formed in 2007.
Charlie Leonard, who previously taught in the Wayzata School District and is the former owner of the recently shuttered Bookcase, saw that a bunch of his former students wanted an outlet to hone their craft in their own time.
He was moved to start Blue Water. The group’s inaugural show was “A Grand Night for Singing,” which it staged at the Black Box Theatre at Plymouth Creek Center.
Blue Water rents various theater spaces for its performances. Rehearsals happen at its 2,500-square-foot studio in the Wayzata Home Center. The theater hopes to one day have a performance space of its own, said Leonard.
Since it began, the theater company, which has a regular season and ticketed performances, has offered a steady diet of four main stage-type musicals a year, plus a handful of smaller productions, including a student-directed show. It has also participated in the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Most recently, the theater troupe performed “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at the Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins.
The theater company, which caters mainly to students in grades six through 12, draws people from all over the area, according to Leonard, who serves as the executive and artistic director.
Many of the young actors return to the company again and again, and nearly 400 youths have participated in all. One actor who started with the group as a sixth-grader and is now in college has been in a record 18 shows, Leonard said.
As such, Blue Water is able to develop long-term relationships with its participants. That helps to nurture them as artists. The talent level has increased through time. “Even if they’re not pursuing theater professionally, the kids take their work very seriously,” Leonard said.
As a result, the theater troupe can tackle challenging material like “Jekyll & Hyde,” usually reserved for older actors, Leonard said. A dark story, it takes students outside of their everyday lives and delves into deep themes, he added.
The story is based on the novel “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s about a scientist who “attempts to discover the source of evil. It looks at what makes people evil and good,” what it means to have a conscience or not, said Leonard.
“Jekyll & Hyde” has a large cult following, even garnering a group of fans called “Jekkies” that travel around to see different interpretations of the musical. Leonard is expecting some “Jekkies” to attend the Blue Waters show.
Rehearsals for the 25-cast member show began last month, and performances will run from Feb. 19 to 22 at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis.
At its rehearsal last Tuesday night, the cast practiced the choreography for the opening number, titled, “Façade.” Using gestures and masks, the actors who worked in pairs alluded to the “invisible” masks that people wear.
“Some things to think about are your choices. You need to be deliberate, with clear full-bodied action,” choreographer Katie Fischer told the group. “You need to use every fiber of your being.”
Growing in theater
Scanlon is training in a new stage manager, Charlotte Ward, an eighth-grader. She looks forward to have a new “techie”-type to pick up where she left off. “I get to bring what I’ve learned to her, so she’ll be better than me,” Scanlon said.
Through the years, she got involved in all aspects of production, including everything from acting to costume design. For “Jekyll & Hyde,” she’s playing around with lighting, sound and special effects.
She’s come a long way since she first set foot at Blue Water. Scanlon once was timid about performing. A friend persuaded her to give it a shot, and she landed a part in “Funny Girl,” which turned out to be “an amazing experience,” she said.
Scanlon hasn’t missed a production with Blue Water since. “My voice used to shake when I talked to people. Now, scripted or not, I can put myself out there,” she said. “I’m a different person.”
As a bonus, she’s formed strong bonds with many of her fellow students. “I made lifelong friends,” Scanlon said.
In other theater settings, she hears about the tension between the performers and the “techies,” who work on everything from lighting to costumes. At Blue Water, though, everyone seems to flow well together.
A learning environment
Kaj Johnson, a freshman at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, stumbled upon the company through the Minnesota Playlist website when he was a sixth-grader. His middle school lacked a theater program.
Now, for the four “Jekyll & Hyde” rehearsals each week, he arrives with his fraternal twin brother, Aaron Johnson, who also has gotten involved with the theater.
For “Jekyll & Hyde,” which Kaj Johnson wasn’t familiar with before, he’s playing Simon Stride, an aristocratic leader on the board of governors, he said. “Dr. Jekyll is trying to pitch an idea to me,” for the hospital. However, his character will stop at nothing to thwart Dr. Jekyll.
Johnson, who is especially interested in the music side of things, said Blue Water has “made me more interested in theater and it’s exposed me to different plays I hadn’t heard of before.”
That’s what Blue Water is all about, said music director Kirsten Hoiseth Thayer. The theater company offers a healthy environment for students to “take risks in art, get better onstage and be comfortable and have fun,” Thayer said.
Blue Water helps to fill a void. At some middle and high schools, students “don’t always get the opportunities in the arts that they should.” Schools can only include so many students in their productions, “purely because of the numbers,” she said.
Likewise, the theater has been a growth experience for her since she’d mainly focused on performance before joining the company.
Thayer, who’s known Leonard since she was in elementary school, has a background as a professional opera singer. She and Leonard kept in touch through the years, and when he offered her the job of directing the music for the theater company, she jumped at it.
At Blue Water, it’s fun to see the students’ commitment, she said. For “Jekyll & Hyde,” which has some hard-to-reach notes, “They’re all up for it and totally in it,” Thayer said. “They know what they’re signing up for. They put their whole heart into it. Hopefully the audiences find it as enthralling as we do.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.