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Building a community on stage

Next Stage at SNC provides collegiate-level theatre program for high school students

By Rachel Sankey

Top, from left: Grace Pieschek, Aria Kiedinger Bottom, from left: Teresa Schmidt, Andrea Hearden Rachel Sankey Photo

Back in 2015, professors at St. Norbert College (SNC) thought it would be a great idea to work with high school-aged students to provide them with a college-level theatre experience.

Now, seven years later, Next Stage is a full-fledged summer theatre program that works with more than 20 schools in a 30-plus mile radius every year.

Teresa Schmidt, the co-director and choral director of Next Stage, and Andrea Hearden, co-director and choreographer, both said it’s rare to see a program, such as Next Stage, be offered at a university.

“It’s a performing arts education program that’s free for our students,” Hearden said. “And that’s because of St. Norbert College. You can’t find that anywhere, where you can go and get that kind of education with the arts and not have to pay a pretty steep price for it.”

The collegiate-level theatre program runs for two-and-a-half months.

Auditions begin at the end of May, rehearsal starts at the beginning of June and runs until mid-August, when the performance caps things off.

This year, Schmidt said there were nearly 90 students who auditioned for a total of 34 different cast roles for this year’s production – Anastasia.

Rehearsal runs from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, however, not everyone is scheduled to be at rehearsal at the same time.

“In the rehearsal process, it really just depends on what section of the show we’re focused on and what role you play,” Hearden said.

Aria Kiedinger, a senior at De Pere High School, said the program differs from a typical high school performance because of the pace everyone works at to put on Next Stage performances.

“It’s different in the sense that we move a lot faster,” Kiedinger said. “Normally in high school productions, you have three to four months to get through the whole musical, where we only have two months. It’s testing you, almost. I’ve learned a lot about how much I can push myself to accomplish in such a short amount of time. I think this experience is really cool in that way.”

This is Kiedinger’s second year being a part of Next Stage. She plays the role of Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandma, in Anastasia.

Grace Pieschek, a homeschooled senior and first year Next Stage student, echoed Kiedinger’s response.

Pieschek said she is part of the ensemble and has some speaking and dance solo parts.

“They definitely teach a lot faster, but it’s good, because everybody here is able to learn at that speed,” she said. “We’re able to do more in a shorter amount of time. And everyone has a passion for it, so people work on it on their own outside of here and then that helps move it along faster. It’s just a higher standard for us.”

Schmidt said as directors, she and Hearden are always trying to teach the cast everything they can learn and want to do.

“In terms of scenic design, lighting, hair, makeup, wigs and costumes, there’s a different level than most high schools are able to provide,” Hearden said. “From my perspective with choreography, we do some actual learning of dance technique during the program, and most high schools don’t have the ability to do that. We also try to look at an educational component in any show that we do that is beyond the story itself.”

Andrea Hearden working with Next Stage students on choreography. Hearden is the co-director and choreographer of the program. Submitted Photo

Hearden said for the upcoming Anastasia show, the cast is learning Russian history, including the era of the 1920s in Paris.

Both Schmidt and Hearden said it means a lot to hear how former students, who were part of Next Stage, go on to study musical theatre in college and accomplish other feats in the world of theatre.

All involved said it’s the community and family that’s been built up every year that is most important to them.

“One of the things we’re most proud of is the way that (the students) form relationships with each other and how they support each other throughout the school year,” Hearden said. “It’s those connections and those relationships that I think are probably the most important success of the program, beyond the educational piece.”

After being a part of Next Stage for the last two summers, Kiedinger said her biggest takeaway from the program is the professionalism they learn.

“I’ve learned a lot about respect for everyone, including cast, crew, pit and just teamwork overall,” she said. “I think professionalism was the most prominent thing that came out of it.”

For Pieschek, she said having the opportunity to work with a bigger group is her greatest takeaway as she experiences her first year with Next Stage.

“In my theater group, we mostly all sing one melody line,” she said. “So it’s been interesting to learn how to work with all the harmony parts and melody parts, and let that all mix, and how much better it makes everything sound.”

As Next Stage’s performance of Anastasia continues through its production process, the co-directors said the program as a whole – from developing creativity to learning worldly skills, such as perseverance and work ethic – is an experience that the students will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

“I think that personal development takes you in whatever you’re doing in all parts of your life,” Schmidt said. “So you have people who you sang with, or did shows with, and sometimes they’re still there for you years later, but it’s because you learned something in the show that really made you grow as a person. You don’t always think about it at the time, but it’s something that sticks with you and hopefully affects you in your whole life.”

Anastasia premieres Thursday, Aug. 11.

To purchase tickets, head to snc.edu/nextstage.

Rachel Sankey is the associate editor of Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at [email protected].

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