Two years ago, 14 children were among the first to participate in the LimeLights Youth Theatre Program at Memorial Opera House (MOH). Today, the number of program participants has skyrocketed to 250. As an outlet for community youth to grow in their knowledge of theatre, creativity, communication abilities, teamwork skills, and confidence, the program is quite the success—and a necessity.
The LimeLights offers a wide variety of experiences for children of all ages. With music and dance classes for toddlers and babies, stand up comedy classes, mask making classes, shadow puppetry classes, plus opportunities for older children in all aspects of producing theatre and more, the program covers the gamut theater and performance creativity.
“My goal for the LimeLights has always been to create a well-rounded arts program,” said Bobbie Sue Kvachkoff, director of education. “I have always been a theatre lover, but not everyone wants to be in the spotlight. That’s why we offer so many unique classes, year-round. We have students with so much potential who would never have thought to join classes such as design, art, choir, set building, or even an acting class, especially at such a young age.”
Much of the credit for the program’s evolution goes to its leaders and instructors, like Kvachkoff, classroom coordinator Victoria Luster-Bartz, and Memorial House Foundation board members Colleen Peluso and Melissa Osika.
“We have been able to offer more classes in a variety of disciplines, and every year our enrollment has increased,” Luster-Bartz said. “This year, we were also able to offer our two choir classes at no charge, due to donations from the community and area businesses.”
Peluso, a full-time English teacher and theatre director at Valparaiso High School who has been involved with Memorial Opera House since 2009, pinpointed how the LimeLights program has such influence.
“We hear a lot about how kids today can't focus, are unkind to one another or don't value hard work,” she said. “However, in my experience as a high school teacher, director, and with the LimeLights kids, the opposite is true.”
“When you gather a group of young people,” she continued, “whether it was the cast of the summer program Peter Pan at the LimeLights last summer, or the cast of Matilda at VHS this fall, they prove that kids today are incredibly collaborative, caring, passionate, and willing to put in impressive amounts of work and focus toward achieving a common goal, which is a successful production.”
Matilda the Musical is a perfect example of the LimeLights Youth Theatre Program’s versatility. A collaboration between the LimeLights and Valparaiso High School, the musical’s cast of 48 included a youth ensemble of 13 children between the ages of 8 and 14.
“The show was the quality I would expect of any of the shows I direct at the Opera House, and it also brought in our biggest audience in years at Valpo High School,” Peluso said. “In addition to the almost 2,000 people who saw the show over three full performances, more than 2,000 elementary students came to see a 35-minute preview of the show during the day on the Wednesday of our tech week.”
The impact of the performance is still rippling through the community.
“Because we got to share the show with so many people, we are hearing extremely positive things like, ‘my son wants to take voice lessons now that he saw Matilda’ or, ‘my students absolutely loved the preview and want to come every year,’” Peluso said. “People who have never been to a musical, especially children, got their first exposure to live theatre, and hopefully will be auditioning for us or signing up to help backstage when they get to high school.”
The experience is sure to help grow both the LimeLights program and the Valparaiso High School theatre program in the coming years.
“My favorite part of the experience, however, was seeing our high school students embrace the LimeLights youth cast members and vice versa,” Peluso said. “There were definitely some tears as we closed because of the impact the ‘big kids’ had on the youth cast. The youth ensemble also infused an energy and sense of fun into the process that we sometimes forget about when we get so serious with the older kids. It was an empowering, exhausting, but overwhelmingly positive experience.”
Many of the LimeLights classes and productions produce a similar reaction among participants and audience members alike.
“I am always proud of the kids who come to us shy and find their voices,” Luster-Bartz said. “We had some fantastic moments of kids breaking out of shy shells this past semester, and I look forward to seeing those same kids continue to grow.”
“Besides encouraging creativity, children involved in these classes have told me that it helped build their confidence and also helped them speak in front of people,” Osika said. “This program is simply amazing.”
One trend among each positive piece of feedback is how safe and inclusive the program is for students of all backgrounds.
“I have had so many wonderful conversations with students and parents about what this program has meant to them. We have a boy who hasn’t always felt like he could be himself. He has expressed on numerous occasions how he finally feels like he is home,” Kvachkoff said.
“We have students with disabilities who have approached us about how students and staff never make them feel like they are different,” she continued. “I’ve seen quiet and meek individuals flourish more and more after each class, and they keep coming back for more.”
Peluso’s own children took the Little Lights class for toddlers and babies.
“I saw my 4-year-old come out of his shell and sing and dance as he got more comfortable with the environment. He had been incredibly resistant to organized group activities,” she said.
To continue to foster this confidence and growth in all community youth, the LimeLights offers a variety of scholarship opportunities.
“We have a booming scholarship program that offers free choir classes, as well as individual scholarships to students who apply,” Kvachkoff said. “Our program is safe and welcoming, no matter where you come from, who you are, or what your family’s financial situation is.”
“My husband and I donated money to provide scholarships for two children for the LimeLights summer camp this year,” Osika said. “We received thank-you notes from both children. I will never forget the heartfelt thankfulness in those notes.”
Programs like the LimeLights exemplify how important the arts and humanities are in education and the human experience.
“The arts teach us how to enjoy life,” Luster-Bartz said. “The Opera House seeks to provide the community with that enrichment in many ways. One way is through the classes we offer.”
“The arts are incredibly important to not only build a positive culture in any community, but to engage young people in collaboration, critical thinking, creative expression, and problem-solving,” Peluso said. “If we want a community with empathetic young people, the arts are integral. Valparaiso is fortunate to have many opportunities for young people to express themselves artistically, and the LimeLights is a wonderful program for our community.”
To learn more about classes and scholarship opportunities offered through the LimeLights Youth Theatre Program, visit https://memorialoperahousefoundation.org/limelights-youth-theatre.