One hundred and twelve kids auditioned last August for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre’s 2019-2020 season-opening Youth Theatre production of The Lion King. Those numbers come as no surprise to the program’s founder, Sonia Young.
“The Youth Theatre has proven to be exactly what I thought it would be,” she says. “Why wouldn’t it be successful? Kids love to perform!”
That recognition launched a program with a distinguished history of nearly 40 years and a vital presence in the community today.
Sonia, born and raised in Chattanooga, remembers her parents taking her as a child to see shows staged by the Little Theatre at Chattanooga at the firehall downtown. That was before it moved to its current River Street location and later changed its name to the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. Sonia loved the shows and knew she wanted to be a part of it some day.
From a young age, Sonia, fondly known as The Purple Lady, fell in love with the color purple. She says purple represents someone expressive that has a love for the arts, much like herself.
“When you wear purple, you can’t hide. You stand out,” she says.
A framed plaque on a wall in her house describes someone with a purple profile: “You have noble ideals and a keen appreciation of the cultural. You are active in the support of things you believe in.”
Sonia has embodied this profile with her life endeavors and many contributions to the arts. She has helped raise funds to support arts and other organizations and has served on several boards, including the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, the Chattanooga Zoo, McKamey Animal Care Trust, the Theatre Centre, and the Little Theatre before it.
Sonia’s service to the theatre began in the late 1950s after she graduated from Tulane University and returned to Chattanooga, where she married Melvin Young. She soon began volunteering at the theatre.
“I wasn’t good at building sets but volunteered in other areas like acting, helping with costumes, and front of house duties. I love the world of make believe. And theatre people are very welcoming. It was a very close-knit community,” she says.
There was only one thing she noticed the theatre lacked. “In all the years I went to the theatre, there were no children on stage,” she says. “My daughter, Melanie, was one of the first children on stage in the role of one of the children referred to as a ‘no-neck monster’ in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Over the years, the theatre began to offer more opportunities for children as a result of Sonia’s persistent pleas for a youth theatre program. By the spring of 1963, the Little Theatre announced it would sponsor an independent Junior Theatre program, offering two productions for youth from elementary school age through college to be rehearsed and performed through the summer. The theatre also began to offer periodic youth acting classes. And in 1971, Sonia helped Mildred Montague raise the funds to build a new near 200-seat circle theatre, adding a second stage with the intended purpose of offering a space for mostly youth productions.
Even though the theatre continued to offer some youth acting classes and the occasional youth show and summer youth program, Sonia still insisted the theatre needed a permanent youth theatre program.
“The board says if you can raise the funds for it, we’ll do it,” she says. Sonia didn’t waste any time. She got the first check for $5,000 from her father and many more donations like it from friends and others who supported the effort. She began using her moniker, “The Purple Lady,” as a marketing tool to raise funds and interest for the Youth Theatre. culminating with her very own production of The Purple Princess in 1981 in the Circle Theatre.
“I sat down and wrote it in a week,” she says. “We had so many audition, I didn’t want to turn any away. It gave a lot of children a chance to participate in the theatre. Most of the set was donated and a lot of the costumes came out of my own closet, which was all filled with purple. We had six performances over two weekends filled to capacity.”
Sonia and her friend, Sally White, who was the marketing director for the Neiman Marcus store in Atlanta, came up with a fundraising idea called “An Evening of Elegance.” It became an annual event over the next several years to raise funds for the youth theatre. “It made a ton of money for Neiman Marcus and the youth theatre,” she says. “It was like the who’s who of Chattanooga in addition to the guests from Atlanta invited by the Neiman Marcus store.”
By 1983, Sonia had generated enough money to ensure the program’s full-time status with the hire of Rodney Van Valkenburg as the first Youth Theatre director, even arranging for him to be appointed as an artist in residence to the local city and county schools for the first year or two to supplement his salary.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Rodney says of how he became CTC’s first youth director. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, he was completing a Masters of Fine Arts Degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro when he learned of the job.
“I saw the card on the job board at school and somehow got the job with very little experience,” he says. “They took a risk on me and I took a risk on them. My mentor professor didn’t think the job would last, but Sonia did a good job of sustaining it.”
He had taught creative dramatics at the Visual and Performing Arts Center in Greensboro. “Being trained in theatre for young audiences is really my background,” says Rodney. He established the still existing rule of casting fourth grade through twelfth grade students for youth shows based on studies showing that most children begin to show signs of maturity by age ten. He also wanted to have a strong group of high school students participate.
“From the beginning, I had the kids involved in the whole process, backstage and on stage,” he says. “We approached it with the attitude that they are actors, not just kids.” He was determined to have quality productions with most shows being double cast, having two casts of about ten to twelve youth actors.
“I felt that it’s not just an experience for the kids, but for the audience too,” Rodney says. “From the beginning, we did school performances. And we had parents involved who were teachers and we got advice from them about what plays teachers wanted their kids to see.”
During the early years of the youth program, Rodney says, “I directed, designed and built sets, did all the costumes and taught youth classes.” When he arrived in Chattanooga, the Circle Theatre was being used as storage space. They cleared it out and for the next several years, it was mostly used for youth shows.
The first youth show he directed at the CTC was Dracula, The Vampire Play. He recalls, “It was in October near Halloween with mostly a high school cast. That group still meets once a year every year and have remained friends. From them, you can see generations of youth theatre kids go on and on.”
By 1990, the Youth Theatre gained international recognition when the International Arts For Peace, a non-profit dedicated to promoting international understanding through collaborative arts projects, selected it to represent the United States at an international theatre camp festival in Moscow. The camp attracted students from Russia, Soviet Georgia, France, Britain, Italy, and Japan. The CTC’s Youth Theatre was chosen because of its growing reputation of giving quality experiences and opportunities for youth in theatre.
Calling the experience the highlight of his years with the program, Rodney says of the camp: “We did a production of The Wizard of Oz because they wanted something American. The IAP thought the only way for Russia to have peace and change was to experience the arts. The Russians were so intrigued by the group of Chattanooga kids that they invited me back the next year and asked me to be the artistic director for the 1991 camp.”
Rodney returned to Russia with a group of students from Raleigh, North Carolina. The camp proved to be more exciting than they anticipated. “On the second day of the camp, the Russian coup took place,” Rodney says. “Though the camp was actually located in Estonia and we were safe, there were some panicked parents back home because communication lines were down and it was before everyone had cellphones.” The Youth Theatre went on to host a group of Soviet Georgian theatre students in Chattanooga.
Between Sonia’s continued fundraising efforts and the money generated from school performances, the Youth Theatre began to thrive. The program has grown exponentially and so have school audiences. During his 13-year tenure as Youth Theatre director, total attendance grew from 5,000 per season to over 15,000 a season.
Rodney commends the quality theatre “created by kids performed by kids. It feels good when you look at the shows and say that’s good theatre. Not just good children’s theatre, but good theatre.”
Over the years, the Youth Theatre has continued to draw grants, corporate and individual donations, and sponsors such as ArtsBuild, where Rodney now serves as vice president. He was youth director at the CTC up until 1997, then was the CTC’s director of programs until 2001, when he left to work for ArtsBuild. ArtsBuild’s Imagine initiative gives at least one arts experience a year for Hamilton County Schools kindergarten through fourth grade students. The first grade experience is to go to a Youth Theatre show.
“About 80 percent of all first graders will come to see a Youth Theatre show this year,” Rodney says. “It has been a great partnership between us, the theatre, and the schools. There’s this trust relationship between the theatre and the schools, so the teachers know they can take time out from instruction and come see a good show. It’s educationally worthwhile to come here.”
Rodney says, “I can’t imagine anyone questioning the importance of youth theatre today, but back in the day we had to defend it. When I first came here, all the plays were meant to serve adults, but now with the Youth Theatre, it would be difficult to imagine that this theatre would be as vibrant as it is without it. It brings in funding, volunteers, and new audiences. Community theatres like the CTC have to find ways to involve the whole community, which involves young people.”
One of the young people that Rodney remembers as a standout from his first audition was a young teen named Scott Dunlap. “Even in high school, you could tell he was very talented,” Rodney recalls. “The challenge for him was that he lived in Cleveland. I wanted to cast him in bigger parts, but the distance was a problem for him, but he would participate as much as he could acting, helping to build and paint sets, and even making some costume pieces.”
Several years later, he says, “just as I had been in the right place at the right time, I saw Scott walking through the theatre lobby and offered him a job as Youth Theatre production designer. We were looking for people who knew about youth theatre. The people you want working with young people need to engage with them and Scott does that. He’s not only a very talented director, but he appreciates the process of doing the shows.”
Since 2013, Scott has been at the helm of the program, choosing and directing some of his favorite shows each year to give children the opportunity to shine and learn on stage and backstage. This fall he chose Disney’s The Lion King, which packed the mainstage auditorium to near capacity for all six of its public and four school shows selling out for closing weekend.
Scott designed the set and the costumes for the show himself, creating beautiful headdresses to resemble the Broadway version of the show while also bringing to life elements from the original animated film, sparking all the fond memories of those who saw it, reflecting his love of stage and film.
Next, he used a similar approach in directing Mary Poppins, a co-production between youth and adults. His perfectionism is evident with each show he directs, demonstrated in his careful attention to even the smallest detail. Though, most of the set and costumes were rented, Scott designed several additional set pieces and costumes, many of which were nods to the Mary Poppins film, such as Winnifred Banks wearing a “Votes for Women” sash in the opening scene, penguins dancing in “Jolly Holiday,” and even making a replica of the beautiful white dress that Julie Andrews wears in the film version of this scene. Once again, this show was a hit with local audiences, selling out its closing show.
Scott’s journey into theatre began with his first audition at the Little Theatre as a middle school youth in 1987, only four years after Sonia realized her dream of having a full- time youth program. Watching plays filmed live for cable television and movies from the time he was a young child sparked his love of acting and theatre.
Because of Sonia’s strong belief in the merits of a youth theatre program and her Field of Dreams-like philosophy of “if you build it, they will come,” kids like Scott had a place go to develop their talents and still do. When he was in seventh grade, he was given a gift of a season subscription to the theatre. Seeing several shows that year further fueled his keen interest. Little Shop of Horrors was especially memorable to him, not only due to the unique plot of a man-eating plant on stage, but seeing his love of theatre connect to his love of cinema, when he later saw the film version.
After observing a notice for upcoming youth auditions in a playbill at one of these shows, he began asking his mom to go audition. But the time and distance between Cleveland and Chattanooga was a problem. Then one summer, there was an opportunity for him to carpool with one of his mother’s coworkers, whose child was in the same play, The Ransom of Red Chief, directed by Rodney.
Despite the distance challenge, he got involved as much as possible during his high school years, whether it was stage managing or working in the technical crew for shows like Colonel Tom Tennessee’s Marvelous Medicine Show, which told of Tennessee folklore through a medicine show, or acting in Ozma of Oz, which was a sequel to the Wizard of Oz. Rodney immediately noticed Scott’s talent for art and design and asked him to make the mask for The Masque for the Beauty and the Beast.
Scott later pursued a career in theatre by attending the North Carolina School of the Arts, majoring in stage management. From there, he moved to Los Angeles to attend the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts and graduated in 1996.
He was working with the academy’s acting company when his grandparents’ declining health became a growing issue for his family. He decided to return to Chattanooga to be with his family and help his mother. Soon after he returned was when Rodney offered him a job as youth production designer and technical director. “I felt really blessed that I had this job where I get to design, create art, and still get to act as a volunteer,” says Scott.
Scott has held the position of youth director at CTC for the last six seasons, using his many talents and masterful direction to benefit a new generation of local children, whether they are involved in the youth program learning from him or delighted and inspired as they sit in the audience.
While working on shows he directs, Scott is involved in every aspect including sketching the set designs, creating headpieces from scratch, sewing costumes, and painting set pieces. He says it’s all a kind of engineering, “It all carries over and all of it is connected, whether you’re doing it with pencil, fabric or a saw, the art is all connected.”
Scott says the 1995 expansion of the theatre building and its resources in addition to the advantage of newer technology have allowed for easier prop and production set design. With the beautiful stage sets, the growth of the Youth Theatre has led to more of the youth shows being presented on the mainstage to accommodate the larger audiences.
Scott says one change he’s observed in the Youth Theatre in recent years is the external change of the increased number of commitments the kids have outside the theatre. “They have all these things pulling them in different directions, so the changes have been to try and accommodate for that,” he says. “The other change is the extent you often have go to compete with the fact that the kids have cell phones all the time. But theatre is a craft and you have to learn to adapt to all of this external influence.”
Scott says one of the most fulfilling aspects of being Youth Theatre director are the instances when he learns that there are kids he has helped. “Kids who are shy or awkward in some way, and to learn that their time here has helped them,” he says. The kids involved in each of his shows not only learn the craft of theatre, but he also teaches them how to work together as professionals to put on a professional level show.
Another fulfilling aspect, he says, is “the pride that the kids have after the show. Kids, who may be upset at the role they got or not happy about the initial casting, but by the end of the show are excited and ready for the next one. So, they leave happy because they were on a winning team.”
He adds, “I feel like my goal as Youth Theatre director and the goal at CTC is to give them all the tools to succeed and to raise the expectations of what they can do.”
Scott also says a positive aspect of participating at the CTC is that there are no fees involved, and the theatre provides everything needed for each show at no cost to the actors. “They don’t have to provide the costumes, sets, or props. All of that comes from us and the help of volunteers. So, our expectation is that you put everything you have into learning your lines, blocking, and choreography,” says Scott.
With each show, the kids learn valuable life lessons. Scott says regardless of what future job they may have, “the teamwork they learn here is key. They learn creative problem solving, what to do when things don’t go right. I think another huge skill they learn is cause and effect and ways to prevent something from going wrong that requires you to think ahead. It forces them to be aware of themselves and others and how their actions affect others. This helps them have empathy for their characters and for each other.”
He adds, “Watching them help each other with their lines or helping each other with blocking or choreography, when someone has missed a rehearsal and the kindness in which they do that is inspiring. Taking the initiative to rehearse on their own to make things better, I see them do that when they take breaks and I love that. All of that, is cause and effect and problem solving, which we need in the adult world. So, I hope we’re making better adults or at least adults who are more conscious of each other.”
Scott says his hope for the future of the Youth Theatre is simply larger audiences. He says, “It has grown by leaps and bounds in attendance over the years, but I really would like to see more people seeing the shows,” he says. “The recognition and validation the kids get from the audience at a show, especially when the show sells out, that’s the biggest deal to them.”
Following the first school performance of Mary Poppins, Scott gave some encouraging words to his cast that said a lot about the incredible impact of youth theatre that Sonia knew it would have and why she worked so hard to make it happen.
Scott told them: “Congratulations! Today you all changed a life. Some child, or many, sat in awe and experienced a live performance, perhaps for the first time. This child might become the next Broadway hoofer or Hollywood star, but their journey started here today. They were enraptured as you tapped and sang and ‘magicked’ for them, and now you have inspired them to start jumping off the living room furniture with an umbrella or making silly faces in the mirror, taking dance classes or singing with all their heart. And it’s because you took time out of your day to show them how beautiful life can be. Some saw lights and sets and costumes and want to make their own. And if we didn’t inspire them to do it themselves, hopefully we have inspired them to be future audience members. They will forever have a story of their school going to see you in a performance of Mary Poppins, and someone in the audience was watching you and you were their favorite. They saw themselves in you, in some way, We all have a story like this that inspired us to become the artists we are, and now we have passed the torch. Whenever I feel down and wonder ‘why on earth do we do this,’ this is what keeps me going, and I hope it helps you on these early mornings of school shows. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for inspiring others!”
By Tammy Knotts | Writer & CTC Parent Volunteer
Posted April 8, 2020