Lights, curtain, action! This year marks the 20th season that Ashland Productions has brought high-quality, family-friendly theater to the east metro community and beyond—and the organization is only growing.
Ashland Productions is a nonprofit dedicated to providing arts education to actors, singers and dancers of all ages. The theater company motivates youth to discover their voice—and talent—on and offstage.
“It’s very much a program about developing and empowering youth, as opposed to just putting on plays,” says Amanda Hestwood, Ashland education director. “We’re all about process versus product.”
Ashland Collaborative Theater (ACT!) is an artist-in-residence program for schools of all sizes, including several in Woodbury (the main production company is based in Maplewood). The ACT! program allows schools to offer students a high-quality theater experience with their peers, right at their school.
“We go out with teaching artists and plant a theater program in elementary schools, giving them the opportunity to participate and learn about theater in their own environment,” Hestwood says.
Rehearsals take place in schools for up to three months before students bring the full youth production that they’ve created to the Maplewood Community Center to perform. Middleton was the first Woodbury school to offer the ACT! program to its students, and now Liberty Ridge and Saint Ambrose offer the unique experience, too.
Saint Ambrose parent coordinator Jean Wallace is thankful for the opportunities that Ashland has provided for her ninth-grade daughter, Bridget, who has been in around 22 Ashland productions since she was 6. “Being the parent coordinator was a method of extending the sense of community and love of musical theater that Ashland has given our family over the years,” she says.
Third-grader Eleanor Gullick enjoyed her time in two Ashland productions put on by the ACT! program at her school, Middleton Elementary. “I knew some people in the shows, but I got to make new friends, too,” Gullick says. “I also loved learning the songs and dances.”
Experiencing theater for the first time in a comfortable environment— her school—had a big impact on Eleanor. “It helped me get more confident,” she says. “When I saw people that I knew in the audience, it helped me get more excited and less scared.”
Ashland kicks off its fall season on November 8 with their all-age season opening show, Beauty and the Beast. The production boasts a large cast spanning many age groups. Hestwood says Beauty and the Beast is the perfect opportunity to showcase one of Ashland’s six pennants— intergenerational mentoring.
“What’s interesting is that sometimes you have younger people who’ve had lots of theater experience, and then maybe you have someone auditioning for the first time at 60 years old,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see that intergenerational mentoring play out in Beauty and the Beast.”
Ninth-grader Bridget Wallace experienced that mentorship first-hand. “People I look up to at Ashland are really good mentors who have been formed by the Ashland community,” Bridget says. “I want to grow up and be a mentor that also helps other people find their voices.”
Bridget is already working toward this goal—she volunteered to be a junior counselor for Ashland elementary school camps during the past two summers. Ashland’s goal of empowering youth to find their voices is being achieved with individuals like Bridget who are inspired to make a difference in their community through theater.