Community stage lights up: ART presents ‘Sweeney Todd’

As Jennifer Grajewski understands, the community's a stage, and all are merely players.

Jennifer Grajewski

Jennifer Grajewski

As Jennifer Grajewski understands, the community’s a stage, and all are merely players.

Drawing talent and resources from past and present cast members and technicians, near and far, Grajewski directs an all-volunteer summer theatrical show that’s unmatched in the Kent area.

It’s an extension of her year-round work as an award-winning drama instructor and musical theater director at Kentridge High School.

“We’re committed to arts education in the community,” said Grajewski, taking a break in preparing the school’s auditorium for “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” an At the Ridge Theatre (ART) presentation that premieres Thursday and continues through Aug. 13. “We’re just a collaboratively, artistic community that’s really trying to do quality theater and help people grow.”

Grajewski, who has been in high school and community theater for 35 years, joined friends to establish ART 16 years ago as a summer stage opportunity to engage and help performers extend their training.

All profits from the summer production are given to the main stage actors in the form of college scholarships.

To date, ART has awarded more than $300,000 in scholarships.

These are given out in the names of Travis Britt and Marques Weekly, who were part of Grajewski’s drama family and passed away at age 19.

“I think of them every day,” Grajewski said of Britt and Weekly, former students who enjoyed performing under the bright lights.

ART’s summer program is a reunion, a collection of skill and expertise, from acting to stage hands. Kentridge drama alumni return each summer from colleges and institutes, avenue theaters and city playhouses throughout the country and other parts of the world to be a part of the production and help run Grajewski’s musical theater camps for children.

As Grajewski explained, it is the only arts musical theater program of its kind in the Kent area.

“Kids who grew up in our program who work professionally, either in technical or performance theater, come back and help us. It keeps that cycle of arts in our community,” she said. “We’re really proud because many of our alumni are going on to be able to make a living in the arts, enrich our community … and we’re proud in what they are all doing.”

A team effort

This summer, a cast of 22, a crew of 10 and other ART volunteers offer up “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller.

In addition, nationally-sought interns have boosted the program.

They are given the opportunity to learn the craft and broaden their scope from seasoned staff and cast while making scholarship money.

“It was the perfect opportunity, and I love being here,” said Emily Boyer, a technical theater and stage management major at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University in St. Louis. “Jenny and the people have been great, and I’ve learned a lot. It’s been wonderful.”

Fellow guest teachers give back as well. For instance, Shawn Riley, a costumer designer and jack-of-all trades from Ballard, worked on “Sweeney Todd.”

Hard work pulls it all together for a brief theater run.

“What takes months to build (for other main productions), we do in less than three to four weeks,” said Bill Trimm, a carpenter by trade who has built sets for the many plays and serves on the ART board of directors. “And it’s every bit as good in a small theater. … Most people who leave this theater walk away going, ‘I can’t believe that a school or civic theater can put out that kind of production.’ It’s absolutely amazing.”

For as much as Grajewski has taught others, she learns even more from those who work in professional or school theater.

“It just makes me a better director during the school year … and everything else,” she said.

Grajewski’s success can be rooted to her approach to children, her way of establishing authentic, genuine relationships.

“I really get to know my kids, and part of that is the discipline I teach my kids,” she said. “I’m about relationships and meeting people where they are regardless of color, sexual orientation, whatever … accepting them and seeing the good in them.”

Grajewski, who grew up outside New York City and went to a performing arts high school, has high expectations for her students.

“They can do far more than you realize,” she said. “I believe in them and help them get the skill-set to be successful.”

And diversifying her stage is most important this day and age.

“I want kids to have options,” Grajewski said. “Kids have to find what they love and are passionate about. … And my goal is to give kids a safe place to practice their art.”

===

SHOW TIME

• Production: At the Ridge Theatre (ART) presents “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and libretto by Hugh Wheeler.

Winner of the Tony Award in 1979, “Sweeney Todd” is considered one of Sondheim’s masterpieces and has enjoyed recent revivals and a film by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp. This hauntingly chilling story explores love, loss and blood-soaked revenge. Returning to London after 15 years of prison, Sweeney seeks vengeance by systematically slicing people’s throats with a razor, while Mrs. Lovett disposes of the bodies by baking them into meat pies.

• Performances: July 28-Aug. 13, at the Kentridge High School Performing Arts Center, 12430 SE 208th St., Kent. Special midnight showing on Friday, Aug. 5.

• Tickets: Prices begin at $15 for reserved seats. For show times, complete ticket prices and ticket orders, check out showtix4u.com and search for Sweeney Todd.

• More information: attheridgetheatre. org.


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