Sierra Hersek with a group of theater program participants on stage at the Benvenuti Performing Arts Center in Natomas.

Acting Out

Grant funding allows local youth the opportunity to experience free community theater  

Back Article Nov 26, 2018 By Christina Kiefer

Community theater, often known for supporting and encouraging aspiring young artists, has a new home in the greater Sacramento area. Thanks to a new Youth Theatre For All program, launched by the Natomas Arts and Education Foundation, more than 50 children ages 10-18 were afforded the opportunity to participate in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” for free for three performances in July.

“Community theater is expensive, and not always readily accessible or affordable for every family, which is partly what makes our program so unique.” Sierra Hersek, director, Natomas Arts and Education Foundation

Made possible by just over $18,000 in funding from a Creative Economy Pilot Grant from the City of Sacramento, an Arts Education Extension Grant from the California Arts Council, and financial support from the Joyce and Jim Teel Family Foundation, NAEF was able to cover more than $400 in expenses for each program participant. The launch of this program was significant, as it removed the steep financial costs associated with youth theater for students at Natomas Charter School, and from the greater community.   

“Our goal was to provide a fun and educational experience, while at the same time removing every barrier to theater that we could control,” says Sierra Hersek, director of the Natomas Arts and Education Foundation and producer of the “Bye Bye Birdie” production. “Community theater is expensive, and not always readily accessible or affordable for every family, which is partly what makes our program so unique.”

Performing live for an audience of 150 every night at the Benvenuti Performing Arts Center on the charter school’s campus, kids not only got a taste of community theater, they also gained something invaluable: confidence. NAEF employed professional coaches with the experience and skills that helped the cast and crew work as a team. Auditions were held in May, and the cast and crew rehearsed through June and July in advance of the performances.

“The growth in the kids was truly incredible, but especially in confidence,” says Kelly Cullity, board president of NAEF and director for the production. “There were kids who were terrified to sing at their audition for the show who, by the end of the process, were completely comfortable standing front and center during the performance. The performing arts does so much for kids who struggle with confidence, and we saw that during this process.”

Looking ahead, NAEF hopes to maintain the Youth Theatre For All program in the short-term, with plans for expanding the program in years to come. Securing funding will play a critical role in how the program moves forward, but it is NAEF’s intent to continue offering this program tuition-free, and to increase the number of kids participating.

Founded in 2002, NAEF’s mission is to support all art and educational programs because it believes a stronger arts community makes for a stronger community as a whole.

“In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of tuition-based youth theater in Sacramento, and while these theater companies provide an invaluable service, those who cannot afford the tuition have limited options,” Cullity says. “Without nonprofit outreach programs like ours, many lower-income families and children wouldn’t have access to the arts. Every person should have the opportunity to live a life rich in the arts community, and we are excited to be part of the movement toward ensuring access for all.”