Center stage and glowing under the bright lights, young artists are blossoming in Kansas City’s art scene.
Each year, thousands of Kansas City’s young people ages three through 12th grade take to the stage at school, during camps and with their performance classes, showing off their acting, singing and dancing skills — also known as “the triple threat.”
Many of those youth walk away with a twinkle in their eye and passion for art that stays with them the rest of their lives.
A select group of those kids decide they would like to dedicate their lives to performing arts.
Sixteen-year-old Jake Bartley, of Olathe, Kan., is one of those young artists who is finding success in the local arts scene. He remembers falling in love with theater at summer camp when he was eight years old. By the next year, he was performing on stage with Trilogy Cultural Arts Centre.
“This is my passion,” Bartley said. “I love singing, acting, and especially dancing.”
Heading into his junior year at Olathe Northwest, Bartley has already built an impressive resume — working at Starlight Theatre, The Theater in the Park, The Coterie, American Heartland Theatre, Unicorn Theatre and Spinning Tree Theatre in addition to his performances with Trilogy.
In thinking about what has brought him this far, Bartley said he goes into every audition prepared but not expecting anything; he practices as much as he can and he views as much art as possible to stay inspired.
Watching a child develop a zeal for the arts is a special experience for arts educators, notes Bridget Taylor, executive artistic director of Trilogy.
In the past seven years since founding Trilogy, Taylor has sent more students off to work at professional theater companies than she could track, with some even making it to Broadway.
She thinks the key to her students’ successes, including Bartley’s, are the principles teachers at Trilogy try to instill in them.
“They need to have a vision for their life that is lasting. Also, healthy artists lead balanced lifestyles, and relationships are the most important,” Taylor said. “Great people will be successful anywhere.”
Similar attributes were given by theaters across the Metro about the kinds of youth they like to cast. Passion and character are at the top of the “desired qualities” lists.
Getting a start at one theater could be an opportunity down the line to perform at another. Most theaters said collaboration is key when searching for students to cast in roles.
“The theater community in Kansas City is very close knit,” said Sarah Crawford, producing artistic director at Musical Theater Heritage.
As head of casting for a professional theater company, Crawford is always hunting for talent, including that found in kids. Just like the adults, the young performers at MTH are expected to grow skills during rehearsals, soaking up feedback and experience.
“It takes an enormous amount of dedication from those kids who are truly wanting to eventually make a living in theater (the arts),” she said.
Matt Rapport, director of education for the Kansas City Shakespeare Festival, pointed out that discipline is also a key component.
“You need discipline to learn your lines, to show up on time, to choose your schedule wisely,” he said. “Particularly when prepping for Shakespeare, as you would at the Shakespeare Festival, it takes extra prep that you wouldn’t need elsewhere.”
While it does give educators a special sense of pride when students take that dedication and discipline to go on to practice their artistic talents professionally, Tyrone Aiken, chief artistic officer at Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, noted that exposing kids to the arts has a higher purpose.
“The most important thing is that our students grow up to be productive parts of society, and art aids in that,” he said. “Art opens a lens and allows people to see the world differently.”
He often thinks back on a note he received from a student who went on to work at Google and still financially supports the mission of KCFAA.
“He said, ‘You were nice enough to let me hang around even though I wasn’t good at dancing,’” Aiken remembered with a chuckle. “He now believes in art. Art experience informs all future professions. It gives you the ability to have tough skin and not give up.”
Amanda Kibler, education director at The Coterie, has several stories of successful students from her past 14 of work in the arts. But one of her favorites involves a student who didn’t go into art as a profession.
“It’s amazing to see how theater changes kids, gives them confidence,” she said. “One mom thanked me for working with her son. She said she couldn’t have raised her son without us. We taught him through theater how to connect with others.”
Kibler said she is blown away by the great talent in Kansas City’s kids, some who will pursue art and others who will eventually find other careers. But she teaches the same concept to them all.
“There’s a quote from Konstantin Stanislavsky, ‘Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art,’” she said. “There’s art in all of our lives.”