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Follow the yellow brick road to the Viridian this May 16–26

May 17, 2017 04:47PM ● Published by Natalie Conforto

Sixteen-year-old Kate Gibson describes the sound she wants to hear from the Jitterbug singers. Gibson is the music director for South Valley Youth Theater’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” (Natalie Conforto/City Journals)

Gallery: Follow the yellow brick road to the Viridian this May 16–26 [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Natalie Conforto | natalie.c@mycityjournals.com

Twenty-two youth gathered around a piano on a chilly Tuesday evening this past March, following their music director’s instructions to enunciate their consonants as they sang, “Oh be careful, of that rascal, keep away from . . . the jitterbug.” They are part of the South Valley Youth Theater, rehearsing for their May production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Their music director is only 16 years old.

Like a typical youth theater, young people fill the acting roles onstage. What makes SVYT unique is that youth are given leadership roles as well. Teens have had the opportunity to direct, choreograph, music direct and stage-manage major, full-length productions at SVYT. For the musical “Annie” last summer, a 14-year-old accompanied the entire show on the piano.

“I feel completely honored that they trust my capabilities. It’s such a great learning experience,” said 16-year-old music director Kate Gibson, who hopes to pursue a career in music and theater education.

She feels this opportunity will look great on her resume. Gibson has been involved in many other performing groups, but South Valley Youth Theater has earned her loyalty in the way they build up their young participants.

“This group is different because it’s so supportive of their youth,” Gibson said. “They make sure that everyone is happy and fits in. There are nine of us on the youth board, and we are given a great deal of responsibility in executing the shows.”

Gibson is one of 750 youth who have come through the theater program since it opened in 2013.

“I wanted to start a theater where youth of all abilities could have an opportunity to be highlighted and to grow,” Founder Jessie Ibrahim said. Ibrahim mentioned her own rough childhood when she was bullied and then discovered acceptance in theater.

“I might have committed suicide, but when I found the theater, I suddenly had friends, and I felt needed,” she said. “I hope that I can bring that sense of belonging to these kids.”

Ibrahim proves her commitment to the youth by her casting policies. She double-casts all the lead roles in order to give more kids a chance to shine and because the two casts can learn from each other.

“I had an experience where one of my leads got very sick and was hospitalized,” she said. “Luckily she was double cast, so the show could go on.”

Another casting policy Ibrahim employs is that young ladies cannot have two lead roles in a row. (As in most theaters, the girls outnumber the boys by about four to one.)

“Those who had a lead in the last show have to take a turn in the ensemble and help others grow to that same level,” she said.

Ibrahim’s training has paid off for these youth when they audition in their high schools.

“You’ll see SVYT kids in leads in every single high school from Riverton to West Valley—on both sides of the freeway,” Ibrahim said. “The kids know I care about them because I try to get to all of their shows.”

The numbers show that Ibrahim’s hope to uplift teens is being realized. Ibrahim said she watches “shy kids bloom and blossom with confidence” in her shows, and then they come back for more. Most of the participants in each show are returnees, but word is spreading, and about one-third of each cast is new to SVYT, expanding their theater family every time. More than 100 kids auditioned for the theater’s past three open productions.

Julie Tate, a South Jordan mom, feels that SVYT is a good fit for her kids, who are involved in the current production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“This is our third show,” Tate said. “This group provides a fantastic performing opportunity for kids to develop their talents and make great friendships.”

Ibrahim loves the bond that the youth form during shows.

“They do things together on their own time because they have become such close, close friends,” she said. “Kids who have left and gone away still claim us as family.”

Mary Ellen Smith, a local seamstress who provides costumes for professional and community theaters throughout the valley, talked about her soft spot for SVYT because of its inclusive atmosphere. Smith learned of SVYT when she attended “Wonderland,” which was performed in ASL to include the deaf community. Some of the cast members were also deaf. Smith was so impressed to see deaf kids cast in lead roles and hearing kids who had learned their parts in sign language to validate their fellow cast members. Smith found director Jessie Ibrahim after the show, gave her a hug and volunteered on the spot.

 “This group has a lot of kids with unique abilities,” Smith said. “Jessie works with them and gives them a chance. She doesn’t call them disabilities, just a challenge that they have, and I appreciate that. There are kids with ADD, who seem to be able to focus better; when they’re acting, they’re not acting out. I can’t praise Jessie enough.”

Smith has donated many sewing hours and many bolts of her personal fabric collection to SVYT.

“I think they’ve done a wonderful job, and they’re a real asset to the community,” she said. “I wish everyone could contribute.”

All of the participants with SVYT donate their time. Ibrahim and Jeannine Hawkins, who are co-directing “The Wizard of Oz,” will donate about 15 hours per week during normal rehearsals, and up to 40 hours during the show weeks. Other community members, impressed by SVYT’s inclusive mission, have donated rehearsal space, such as the Shar Wood Recording Studio and the Black Diamond Dance Studio. Unlike most community theater groups, however, SVYT is not subsidized by city funds, and Ibrahim said that finding performance venues is her biggest challenge. School stages cost about $10,000 to rent for a production, and with SVYT’s modest cast fee ($50) and what Ibrahim calls “family-friendly ticket prices ($5-$7), renting a school is not an option. The group also has to pay for the rights for the script, costumes, set, props and programs.

“The Wizard of Oz” will be performed in the amphitheater of the Viridian Event Center on May 16, 17, 18, 24, 25 and 26. SVYT will bring in its own curtains and set pieces for the show. Tickets will be available at the door or from cast members in advance for $5 for lawn seating. Guests may bring their own low-backed lawn chairs or rent chairs for $1 each. Concessions will also be available. SVYT will hold auditions for their next show, “Cinderella,” in June.

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