Young performer hones her stage presence at fest

Fresh back from an incredible three-day whirlwind experience at Junior Theatre Festival West in Sacramento, Calif., 11-year-old Veronica Gartner had flipped the script back to school.

"I had a lot of work to catch up on, but we're getting there," the Hinsdale resident said this week.

The assignment backlog was a small price to pay for the delight of taking part in the musical theater-dedicated annual event Feb. 9-11. Gartner, a member of Hinsdale-based BAMtheatre, was one of 35 members of the company's Junior BAM Conservatory Ensemble to make the trip.

"It's just a bunch of theater kids all coming together, and it's just really cool because we all share the same interests and likes," said Gartner of joining 2,000 other participants at the festival, some from as far away as Poland and New Zealand.

They performed a portion of "Seussical" for judges, recruited from the ranks of stage professionals. The focus is on acting, singing and dancing in the stripped down format.

"No sets, no props, no costumes," she said.

Groups find any open-air space they can to hold rehearsals, like a playground or even a parking garage. There's also free time built in to grow one's skills.

"There are workshops were you can just, like, learn a song or go to a dance workshop," Gartner explained. "It's a fun weekend filled with more than just getting judged."

Gartner, part of the ensemble, has been in Junior BCE the last three years. This was her second voyage to Sacramento after being in the contingent that traveled to a larger JTF gathering held in Atlanta in January of last year. She especially enjoys being in community with others that share her enthusiasm for the stage.

"It's just so cool to be with other people that also want to be there, too. The energy is so high - it's a lot but it's also super fun," she said.

The festival promotes affirmation, not rivalry, and Gartner said festival-goers recite a pledge to embrace that spirit of camaraderie during their stay.

Gartner and her cohorts staged the full version of "Seussical" last year. Getting plaudits from loved ones is rewarding, but they were especially thrilled at the impression they made on the JTF West judges.

"We won best ensemble work," she said.

In addition, the group was selected by festival organizers as one of only five youth theater companies to showcase a new work, "Alice in Wonderland Junior."

"Usually groups come there for like 10 or 15 years before they get to perform a new work show. It's like a really big deal," Gartner said of the 15-minute cut from the production, which has yet to be licensed for general use. "It was so crazy and we were really honored because this is just our third year."

Judges provided constructive notes after their performances, offering both praise and pointers.

"They tell you what they loved and they also tell you things, like, 'I wonder if we can experiment with you standing over there' or 'Let's work on the dynamics of that song,' " she related, adding that watching other groups perform was enlightening, as well. "You do have to be teachable and be open to new ideas."

- story by Ken Knutson, photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean