When Nathan Rowbotham responded to a call for auditions for Blue Water Theatre Company in the local paper, he had no idea becoming part of a show would introduce him to his second family. The Wayzata-based nonprofit theatre group is for students in grades 6 through 12 and involves as many as 200 student actors and their parents each year. “This is very professional, but there’s a family atmosphere,” says 14-year-old Rowbotham.
Rowbotham had been involved in theatre before, but when he started working with Blue Water, he knew there was something special about this dedicated group of students. “Even though we don’t go to the same school, everyone accepts you,” he says. “You can see the connection between cast-mates. We’re not just people on stage saying lines.”
After three shows with the theatre group, Rowbotham’s family and friends can see the positive influence Blue Water has had on him. “It’s been great to see him blossom as a young man who is gaining poise and confidence,” says mom Telly Mamayek. “I really believe this is cultivating his ability to hold himself as an adult in front of an audience. It will serve him well no matter what he does in life.”
Creating Blue Water
Instilling confidence and introducing theatre to teenagers who might have missed out on the experience in school are reasons why Charlie Leonard started the Blue Water Theatre Company in 2007. He was a theater teacher in the Wayzata School District and saw the potential to create meaningful, life-changing theatre away from an academic setting. Since then, the quality of work and advanced skill of the company has surpassed Leonard’s own expectations.
“We started this just to give opportunities to kids who may have fallen through the cracks in school programs, but really the work we’ve done is quite good and I would hold it up against any program or major youth theater in town,” says Leonard. “Artistically, we are not a second option for people. We are the first option and that is humbling.”
Perhaps one of the reasons students have excelled is that Leonard and other adult volunteers can work with students for as long as seven years. Most school programs only engage students for a few years before they advance to another school, another director and another program. “Most [students] don’t do every production,” says Leonard, “but we make a strong effort to make them feel like they are involved. The kids always refer to this as their second family because they spend so much time with us, and that’s gratifying.”
Creating a Challenge
But that doesn’t mean the experience is a cakewalk for students. In fact, Leonard strives to make the shows a challenge for everyone. “The experience we are giving the actors is preparing them for something bigger,” says Leonard. “We don’t let their age limit them in what we ask them to do.”
Leonard tries to select at least one show each year with some intense, challenging material, like Sweeney Todd or Les Miserables—though other selections are a little more family-friendly. “Annie and The Sound of Music are great shows, but shows like Sweeney Todd are a bit tougher and stretch everyone a little bit more,” says Leonard. “We’re in a position where we can push our kids on more mature content and see more development as an actor.”
Leonard and adult volunteers aren’t only teaching the students about producing theatre, but also about responsibility and work-life balance. “One of the things I’ve always felt strongly about is kids are pretty awesome and capable of much more than adults give them credit for,” says Leonard. “We set up the expectation that you have a job to do and you should do it.”
Throughout the sometimes-long rehearsal process, students know they have to keep up with their production responsibilities as well as their schoolwork. “Charlie tells us whenever we have free time, we should be working on our homework or doing something silent,” says Paige Anderson, a 13-year-old actor with Blue Water.
During productions, students are not only on stage, but they’re also running the show backstage. “Kids get empowered to take charge of their own show,” says Teresa Anderson, Paige’s mom and parent of two other members of the company. She’s one of many parents who volunteer by building sets, finding costumes and coaching student actors and stagehands. “We try to teach parts, but when it gets to the show, it’s only as good as they can make it,” says Anderson. “It’s not our show, it’s theirs.”
Right now, Blue Water doesn’t exactly have a home. The company uses the Wayzata Home Center for rehearsals and stages productions at Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins, Central Middle School in Wayzata or even the Southern Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Eventually, Leonard and the company would like to have their own space. “I would be disappointed if five years from now there’s not some plan to be in our own space,” says Leonard. “It’s an expensive dream and you never know when it’s actually going to happen.”
Until then, Leonard and other volunteers rave about the experiences and relationships that Blue Water fosters. “Theater kids are often pretty geeky, but Blue Water does a great job of not letting them feel that way,” says Teresa. “The kids really rally round each other.” To encourage interaction among all age levels in a show, older and younger girls are paired together in a big sister/little sister duo.
“The big kids make us feel welcome,” says Paige. “My big sister showed me around and said ‘this is what this person does and this is what you do here.’ She gave me so many tips that I don’t think I would’ve gotten on my own.”
The least favorite part of every production is when it’s over. Parents say it’s common for some students to even tear up during the first act of the final show just anticipating the final curtain call. “It’s heartbreaking after the show because you know you are going to miss people so much,” says Paige. But the sadness doesn’t last long, says her mom Teresa, because actors know there’s always another show on the calendar. “When the show ends, my kids ask, ‘Mom, can we do the next one?’” says Teresa. “Because it’s all just so great.”
Blue Water Fourth Annual Fundraiser Gala
Saturday, March 7
Wayzata Country Club