Ari Koehnen Sweeney, right, with a group of young performers at the "Spotlight Showcase" last spring at the State Theatre. (Photo provided)

She grew up in the Hennepin Theatre Trust's Spotlight Education program to nurture young musical-theater talents. Now Ari Koehnen Sweeney is taking on a leading role, as HTT's director of education.

Since 2015 she has managed Spotlight Education, best known for its annual "Spotlight Showcase," a two-night event at the State Theatre in Minneapolis featuring high school performers from around Minnesota.

"Engaging with students from all over the state is what hooked me [on Spotlight], especially working with technical students who rarely receive special attention or accolades," she said. "The energy backstage during showcase is palpable. Being a part of that rush and having a hand in its success, you kind of feel like a rock star, even in the shadows."

Koehnen Sweeney has been involved with the program since she was a freshman at Minnetonka High School in 2005-06.

As a talented basketball and lacrosse player with dreams of playing in the WNBA, she didn't plan to devote much time to her interest in theater. But when her brother brought up the idea of auditioning for a show, she decided to try out with him.

"It became a thing we started doing in the summer," she said. "It was a cool way for us to hang out."

Her first high school musical, "Once on This Island," was a multiple Spotlight Award winner and secured the Minnetonka students a slot in Scotland's famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they performed "Les Misérables." She got involved with more shows and began to attend the annual "Spotlight Showcase" as well.

Theater became a release from the high-pressure world of high school sports.

"With basketball, there's a competitive atmosphere," she said. "You arrive [at the theater] and there's no competition. You can look across the room and know we are celebrating each other. That sense of community is what has stuck with me."

After graduation in 2009, she stayed involved with theater at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she earned degrees in theater management and business communications, and back home. She worked at Old Log Theater after college, then was invited to stage manage "Spotlight Showcase" in 2013.

"That's when I realized how mammoth this project truly was," she said. "As someone working on the production side of things, you start to truly understand that this event takes a year to create and two days to enjoy."

In her new position, she will pull back from her Spotlight-centered focus to oversee educational programming and projects at Hennepin Theatre Trust as a whole. She hopes to utilize the organization's resources to fund a variety of programs people.

"Bringing joy into everything you do is super important, and there's times when programs need to be restructured and rebuilt," she said. "Sometimes someone needs to come in, shake it up and put their own stamp on it."