A passion for children’s theater: Tony-nominated director brings expertise to local stage
FRONT ROYAL – For Dolly Stevens, theater matters. The teacher, writer, actor and award-winning director now residing in Strasburg found over the years what a difference theater can make over, especially for those young at heart.
“To me, theater is like the ‘Wizard of Oz,'” Stevens said. “When Kansas is black and white but Oz is in color. That’s how I see theater. In color.”
FINDING HER PASSION
Throughout her childhood, Stevens’ interest in theater was minimal but she said she found herself up on stage performing in church choirs and various variety shows. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school when her passion for theater would evolve and come full circle; she was cast as Dolly Levi, the lead role in “Hello Dolly.” Since then Stevens said she’s always been involved in theater “in one way or another.”
In 1977, Stevens became the Shenandoah University’s first musical theater graduate.
“I allowed my parents to convince me that I should major in something sensible,” Stevens said. “But after my first semester, I came home and told them I wanted to become an actor. They told me I would starve but they really supported my decision.”
Like many actors, Stevens decided after graduation to move to New York City to find her own fame and fortune. She joked that she found neither but was “lucky enough to find some theatrical work and chalked it up to a great learning experience.”
Stevens said despite her life and love for theater in New York, she realized she wanted more diversity in her life. She returned to Virginia where she married her long-time boyfriend and had three children.
“Over the years, I’ve become somewhat notorious for my work,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing, wouldn’t you say?”
Stevens maintains an active professional life in both musical and theatrical circles. She has been nominated and has won numerous awards including a Tony nomination in 2015 for “Excellence in Theatre Education”– – an award presented by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University to celebrate teachers who are creating the next generation of theater artists.
The Tonys are the theatrical equivalent of Academy Awards in the motion picture industry.
Other theater awards won by Stevens include National Youth Art Awards presented by National Youth Arts for past productions at Blue Ridge Middle School in Purcellville, Virginia: outstanding production for “The Lion King”; outstanding production and ensemble for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and best leading and supporting actors for “Beauty and the Beast.”
In October 2018, Stevens will be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from her alma mater for her role in children’s theatre.
Her favorite productions include “Hello Dolly,” “Wizard of Oz,” and “Sweeney Todd.”
In 1994, Stevens was approached by Loudoun County to create the first premier youth theater company. From 1994 to 2004, Stevens, the founding artistic director, taught acting classes and workshop, along with running the popular summer theater camp. In 2009, Stevens began directing musicals at Blue Ridge Middle School.
It was while directing “Snow White” and “the Wizard of Oz” at Blue Ridge that Stevens said she found she had a knack and passion for working with children.
“I should’ve known I wanted to work with children because I have three of my own,” Stevens said. “I dressed them up regularly, pulled out the video camera, set them up and I’d narrate each production while they performed.”
“font-weight: 400;”>Stevens said that should have been her first clue. “I was destined to work with children, I just didn’t know it yet.”
She noted that wherever she has the opportunity to introduce theater and involve kids, she’s doing two things: “Turning kids on to this art form that may or may not be their thing and teaching them that performing is a lot of fun but can be hard work. Ninety percent of the kids I’ve worked with love it and want to do it more. It’s fun to get up there and sing and dance your heart out.”
Stevens said her favorite part about being involved with children’s theater is seeing the young people fall in love with theater and helping them make the stories their own.
“Amazing things happen when a person gets on stage, especially a child,” Stevens said. “In theater, you have the opportunity to portray a scenario on stage – something silly as straight-up entertainment while other shows have a more serious theme or undertone that will cause you to think. Theater can cause you to think and reflect, perhaps open your mind to another viewpoint. Theater is not for everyone but I think kids reach a point and say to themselves: ‘wow- this is what I want to do’. And that’s the beauty of it.”
Through art, Stevens said she feels like she’s making a difference in the children’s lives.
“All art matters,” she said. “Theater matters because it imitates life or does life imitate theater? There’s the fun.”
For the first time, in partnership with Selah Theatre, Stevens is introducing musical theater to Front Royal – something she said she’s really looking forward to. Although she’s not new to the area, Stevens, a resident of Strasburg, said she noticed a need for musical theater for youth during her explorations of Warren County and surrounding areas.
This summer a cast of 15 actors will bring the sci-fi musical production “Zombie Prom” to the big stage. “Zombie Prom” tells the story of a boy and girl who fall in love, but their parents don’t approve. The couple breaks up, the boy dies and later returns as a zombie to ultimately get his girl back.
“It’s going to be great,” Stevens said. “So great I’m hoping it kind of blows the doors open.”
Stevens said she feels like Selah Theatre is committed to trying to add this extra arm to its theater repertoire.
“Musicals are important for the community,” she said. “Even when you don’t have them, theater is wonderful. But when you add a musical, it’s an entirely different feeling.”
Stevens said she would love to see the summer theater camp grow into more than just a camp. Her hopes for Selah include adding a full-blown musical to the rosters while teaching voice and acting lessons.
“I want to reach as many children in the area as possible,” she said. “The arts, which are so critical and important, make anyone, no matter their age, feel alive. When a person comes into a show I’ve directed and at the end they ask me how old the children were, that’s my favorite comment because they came in with low expectations or maybe none at all but left feeling amazed. That’s why we do what we do.”
Stevens said she feels fortunate and blessed to get high-caliber performances out of her theater children. She said she doesn’t treat them as kids and doesn’t talk down to them. Instead, she lets them embrace who they are and what they love.
“Every time I set the bar high, they go above it,” she said. “The work is the most important, so much where we do it but that is happening. Good theater and good work is happening everywhere.”