When Lauren Russell was going into the sixth grade, she performed in her first Student Theatre Project at Andria Theatre, which at the time was known as Alexandria Area Arts Association.
Today, the 2019 graduate of Alexandria Area High School is performing in her seventh Student Theatre Project. And she's loved every performance she's been in.
Russell said her acting career began when two of her friends were in "Seussical Jr.," and after seeing the show, she asked them how she could become involved.
"They told me to sign up for it the next time and it was the best thing that could've happened to me," she said.
Being a part of the Student Theatre Project has introduced Russell to some amazing friends, she said. Everyone is supportive and works together as a team to make whatever show they are working on their best, and she highly encourages anyone interested in theater to sign up for the project.
This fall, Russell will be studying music education at Gustavus Adolphus with a goal of becoming a music teacher. She enjoys playing the viola and piano, and also sings.
She remembers how, when she was younger, she looked up to the older students she worked with each summer on the Student Theatre Project. They became great mentors, and now she has the opportunity to mentor the younger students.
"It's a great experience to work with them and they really appreciate it," Russell said. "They work really hard and it's fun to be in shows with them."
How it began
The Andria Theatre's Student Theatre Project began nine years ago, and the current show, "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat," is its 12th production. It opened last weekend and will run again Thursday-Saturday, June 27-29, starting at 7 p.m.
The next production is Disney's "The Lion King Jr.," scheduled to run Aug. 1-3 and 7-10 with shows at 7 p.m.
David Christman, who is now Andria Theatre's artistic director, wanted to teach classes for adults at the downtown theater back in 2010. However, the theater's management at the time wasn't interested in that, and instead asked if he could teach kids.
His life was a bit crazy at the time, he said. His wife was in the process of having a heart transplant in California, and their 5-year-old son couldn't be with her at the time due to hospital orders.
"It was a traumatic time in our lives," Christman said, adding that he didn't know how much time he could devote to working at the theater.
The next summer, he was asked to direct a student production, and the Student Theatre Project was born.
In 2011, Christman directed "Seussical, Jr." and 23 kids took part. He directed two more plays the next year, and each year the participation has grown.
Learning the craft
Students apply and pay a fee to be part of the summer production. They have to audition, and the students who make it are each given a role.
"The students are treated the same as professional actors no matter how big or small their part is," said Christman. "They learn the craft and work hard."
He said it is amazing to watch the students grow through the program. Some have been in several shows, and are now mentoring younger students after being mentored themselves while they were just starting.
Students learn every aspect of the theater - ticket sales, marketing, event promotion, set design, costume design, sound and lights, and of course, vocal, drama and dance performance.
"They clean the theater, they wash it and take care of it," said Christman. "These students love this art form and appreciate it. It is their theater."
When a student production starts, he asks students to close their eyes and listen, and asks what they hear. Most often, they say they don't hear anything, which is exactly what he wants them to hear.
"The people in the audience," he tells them, "want you to succeed. They want to hear you. They want to sit back, relax and be entertained. The audience understands it's a fantasy world and want you to bring it to their lap."
At the end of the program, Christman said if students can stand on stage in front of a group of people and state their name with confidence, he feels they've won, and that he's done his job.
One of the greatest enjoyments for Christman is the stories parents share about their children. Parents write emails or send letters to him about how excited their child is in being a part of the theater.
"I have heard from parents who tell me their child tells them, 'Now I belong. I now have friends. I have found my people, my clan,'" he said.
There is something special about "theater people," Christman said-they form a special bond with each other and have a sense of belonging that is sometimes hard to explain.
No matter how big the role, everyone cheers for everyone and wants each other to succeed.
"When a show is over, no one cares what role they had," he said. "They, the cast, get so excited to see each other doing so well."
And it's not just the students. Parents deserve a shout out, too.
"The parents are dedicated," he said. "They are the ones making sacrifices. Parents are a huge part of our success."
Christman feels blessed to be a part of the Student Theatre Project each year, and has loved watching it grow. The connections he's made have been plentiful.
"It is so awesome to be training up new actors so that our community theater can keep on thriving," he said.