Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly spelled Linda McGinness' name.
This is a youth theater group that takes a different path.
Instead of handing out awards for best actor or actress, this group has awards titled Leap Frog, Spark Plug, Brave Heart and even Screwball.
“My heart is not to make stars out of kids,” said Linda McGinness, co-founder and artistic director for Christian Youth Theater Wichita. “My heart is for them to see who they are and how they can grow into that person.”
Five years ago, two friends who love God, musical theater and children began talking about bringing a special program for kids to Wichita.
Sarah Anderson had watched her niece enjoy participating in a Kansas City-area affiliate of Christian Youth Theater, a national after-school theater training program for ages 5 to 18.
“I loved it,” she said.
She told McGinness, her friend, about it. They visited CYT affiliates in Kansas City, Phoenix and Chicago.
“I liked the family orientation, the way they related to each other,” said McGinness, who taught vocal music for eight years and has scripted more than two dozen musicals for area schools and churches. “And they were totally supportive of us. It was always, ‘What can we do to help you?’”
Started in 1981 in San Diego, CYT has grown to nearly 40 affiliates in cities across the country. Anderson and McGinness saw to it that Wichita was added to that list.
Despite short notice, 200 parents showed up at an informational meeting in early 2009. Thirty-six kids signed up for the weekly classes and put on their first musical, “Robin “Hood,” later that year.
Alena Logan had a part in “Robin Hood” as an eighth-grader and has been in most of the CYT shows ever since. Now a senior at Northfield School of Liberal Arts in Wichita, she has a part in the group’s 13th show, “High School Musical,” Nov. 21-23 at Northeast Magnet High School in Bel Aire.
She has watched the group grow from the original 36 kids to 225 this fall. That growth has required a maturing process that in some ways parallels the plot of “High School Musical.”
The storyline is about kids from different backgrounds learning to work together so they can be part of the musical. Kids participating in real-life CYT Wichita have matured as well.
“One of the first things I learned when I came to CYT was that it felt like a family,” said Logan, who plays the part of Sharpay in the musical. “As we’ve grown as an organization, that’s been harder to keep the family atmosphere. We’ve got more people, different interests.
“This show reminds us that we’re not here to be in different groups. We’re one family. And we’re doing all this to glorify God and not to glorify ourselves.”
They also work hard.
All of those participating in the program are enrolled in weekly two-hour classes in dance, vocal music or theater. They can attend classes on Mondays at First Mennonite Brethren, 8000 W. 21st St., or on Tuesdays at First Church of the Nazarene Church, 1400 E. Kellogg Drive.
If they land a part in a musical after auditioning, they’ll practice three hours on Fridays and 6 1/2 hours on Saturdays. All the students participate in a “showcase” event at the end of each session of classes, giving them a chance to put on display before an audience of friends and family what they’ve learned.
“Some days I get kind of tired,” said Mikhail Yeremin, a junior at Northeast Magnet who is a thespian in the musical. “But I come here and my spirits get lifted. I’m able to truck on through and have fun with it.”
Costs for the students – $7.50 per hour for classes, $60 to take part in a musical – are kept low because parents of children in a production donate 20 hours to committees that handle everything from building props to making costumes.
“Even in that, we’ve found relationships grow,” McGinness said.
A half-dozen experienced teachers handle the instruction.
Kali Barnett, the director for “High School Musical,” has a master’s degree in music and has performed in shows around Wichita. Karen Sims, the show’s music director, teaches vocal music for the Maize school district. Her daughter, Kristina Sims, who teaches fifth grade in Maize schools, is the choreographer.
But the teachers do more than teach the kids how to dance, sing or act.
“They have an impact on your lives,” said Lindsey Chastain, a sophomore at Classical School of Wichita who plays the part of a Brainiac in the musical. “It’s definitely the people that make it fun. The kids are really welcoming.”
While all the instruction and hard work produces quality results, that’s not the only goal, said co-founder Anderson, who serves as the group’s board president and has performed in music theater in Kansas City.
“We don’t want to just train the kids to do theater, dance, sing and act,” she said. “We want to train them to have kindness, to think of others before themselves, to have integrity and poise.”
For demonstrating such qualities in a production, a boy is presented the Brave Heart award and a girl is given the Rose award.
The Spark Plug award is for acting – but not just for performing well.
“It’s for someone who takes a role and does it with such enthusiasm and energy that it spreads to the whole cast,” Anderson said.
The Screwball award is for the student who makes a mistake onstage but covers well for it.
“It’s kind of like a poise award,” she said.
The Leap Frog award goes to a student who shows significant growth.
“A lot of times a kid will come in who is scared or they just can’t perform very well,” Anderson said. “But they put their minds to it and do really well over time.”
Aaron Richards, a high school senior from Inman who is home schooled, won the Brave Heart award for his performance two years ago as the prince in “Cinderella Enchanted.”
But when he started four years ago, he said, “I was really, really shy. I wouldn’t ever talk to anyone when they came up to me.”
He wasn’t sure about auditioning, but he did and landed a part in “Tom Sawyer.” He’ll be a thespian in “High School Musical,” his fifth show.
“Now I approach people and talk to them,” Richards said. “But I’ve reached that point because a lot of people have come alongside me. The teachers have been my mentors. My best friends are here now.”
Yeremin’s career plan is to become a physician, but he said he intends to take part in theater in college.
“This is something I would want to keep as a hobby,” he added. “It’s my relaxation.”
That makes McGinness smile.
“It’s not just about the shows,” she said. “It’s about the journey they take the kids on.”