High school theater productions are known to be a little bland—not, necessarily, because of the talent or production value, but because most schools are afraid of the controversy some adult-themed shows produce. Thus, there’s a fairly common cycle—and recycle—of standard high school shows.
Plymouth resident Charlie Leonard launched the Blue Water Theatre Company in 2007, in part to break that cycle. Leonard began as a theater director at Wayzata West Middle School. He realized that as his actors were moving from middle school to high school, they were getting lost in the shuffle.
“The most talented kids I had would get to high school, and they wouldn’t get cast in shows because of age,” Leonard says. “By the time they moved on to their junior and senior years, they had moved on to other things and weren’t interested in theater anymore.”
And in seven short years, his efforts seem to be working. Proof of the talent coming out of Blue Water Theatre can be seen in its alumni. Both Katie Halloran and Sam Weisberg moved to Boston after graduating from high school to pursue a life in theater. Weisberg attends classes at Emerson College and dreams of becoming a director—thanks, he says, to the two shows he directed during his years at Blue Water. Halloran, who snagged her “dream role” of Eponine in Blue Water’s production of Les Miserables, is working on her bachelor of fine arts at Boston Conservatory.
“Every girl wants to sing ‘On My Own’—it’s sort of become a cliché,” Leonard says. “I think I’ve seen Les Miserables more than three dozen times, and [Halloran] was honestly the best I’ve ever seen in that role.”
When Les Miserables hit the Blue Water stage in 2011, it followed Sweeney Todd, another advanced production from 2011. Both are not only difficult for the most experienced actors, but also darker, with more intense thematic elements, than the average high school show. Sweeney Todd, for example, is the musical tale of a murderous barber. Both are examples of the way Leonard challenges every student who comes through his doors.
“We are the only theater in the Twin Cities, and among the only ones around the country, that concentrates on a regular theater season with mainstream shows,” Leonard says. “Most of the other theater companies working exclusively with kids perform children’s shows.”
The way Leonard pushes his kids can be seen through the summer camp he puts on each July. For one month, students are given a glimpse behind the curtain of working on a true theater production. “It’s a really valuable experience for kids, because a pro show runs in that condensed time frame,” says Weisberg, who’s participated in several summer shows with Blue Water. The camp is held at Wayzata Central Middle School at a cost of $355.
From the first day of this summer camp, students are handed the script to the show, and making it come to life becomes a full-time job. Daily rehearsals from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. culminate in the final production at the end of the month. Leonard also puts on a condensed version of the camp for elementary school students during the same time period.
“Kids who decide [theater] is something they are really serious about pursuing, it’s the summer program that really gives them that, ‘Yeah, this is the life I want,’ versus, ‘Holy cow, this is fun, but I don’t want to do it for eight hours a day the rest of my life,’” Leonard says.
For former students like Halloran and Weisberg, the summer camps did anything but scare them away from theater. “Blue Water constantly reminds me of theater’s significance and always has been a place for me to surround myself with great friends who remind me of why I’m passionate about this art form,” Halloran says.
WHAT: How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
WHERE: Eisenhower Community Center, 1001 Minnesota 7, Hopkins
WHEN: 7 p.m. June 12–14
More information can be found at bluewatertheatre.com.