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The 19th-century Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead was buzzing as Sophia Burke fielded one question after another. A bobby pin had just fallen from a girl’s hair. A boy inquired about a name tag. Ms. Burke assured him she needs only five minutes to make it.
Kids in Oompa Loompa costumes raced past her.
She wore a fanny pack at her waist, keeping various tools and supplies at the ready. She’s part organizer, part prop builder, part makeup artist.
“I like when they come to me because it makes me feel important,” she said of answering so many questions.
Nine years ago, at age 11, Ms. Burke was part of the first group to perform as members of the Spotlight Theatre Group. Now 20, the Wading River resident said her mom loved acting and signed her up with a friend. She never knew at the time it would lead her down a path that she hopes will become a career.
She’s now the group’s stage manager and moved swiftly from one task to another Friday night during dress rehearsal for the weekend performances of “Willy Wonka Jr.”
Ms. Burke has performed in all but one show since she joined Spotlight Theatre Group — most recently playing Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.” She began interning with the group as she started at Suffolk County Community College and then became stage manager.
Asked what she got out of the program, she replied: “Everything.”
“I made best friends here,” she said. “Kim [Galway] and Darby [Moore] are my mentors. I learned that I wanted to be a director. I had a lot of things I thought I wanted to be and now I know I like bossing people around.”
Ms. Galway and Ms. Moore cofounded Spotlight, which was born out of another theater group they had started earlier called ACT Out East in Riverhead. No child who wishes to participate is turned away from Spotlight. And the directors make sure that every student gets a moment on stage. Everyone plays an integral role.
Ms. Galway and Ms. Moore both have backgrounds in drama therapy and many students find Spotlight provides an avenue to express themselves in a way they might not find elsewhere.
“I think theater is just phenomenal for kids,” Ms. Galway said. “Sometimes, in school productions, they can’t cast all the kids who want to participate or kids are afraid in school.”
Spotlight assembles a unique group of kids to perform a musical. Cast members range in age from 7 to 17 and come from schools across the East End. Some have acting experience; others are first-timers. Some are top students in their respective classes; others have special needs.
“Our motto is the spotlight is on you,” Ms. Galway said.
The cast of “Willy Wonka Jr.” featured 35 kids, only a couple of whom were new to the program this year. So many who start at a younger age stick with it. In the weeks leading up to the production, the younger students, known as juniors, rehearsed together and the older students, the seniors, stick together. They rehearsed on Saturdays at St. John’s School in Riverhead. As the production nears, the two groups join together to begin putting the final production together. Next year the younger group will split off to perform its own production as a way to incorporate more students into the program.
“It blows my mind,” Ms. Moore said of how the kids all learn their lines with only one rehearsal a week. “I never would have been able to do that. But they do it every year. It’s a miracle.”
Ms. Moore recently retired from her job at Eastern Long Island Hospital, where she worked in behavioral health.
In addition to the two directors, the staff features a variety of volunteers, including program graduates, some of whom have gone on to study theater in college, Ms. Galway said. Doug Sabo, who’s an active performer in opera and art song, works as the group’s vocal director.
Part of the thrill for the directors is seeing so many of the young kids blossom as they learn their roles and break out of their shells. Ms. Galway described one girl who started with the program this year who was very quiet at first.
“Now she’s out there, and she’s so confident,” Ms. Galway said. “I think this whole process really helps with kids’ self-esteem and confidence. That’s what it’s all about.”
In addition to the musical, Spotlight also hosts workshops during the fall and summer. Spotlight will offer a weeklong showcase in August at Vail-Leavitt where kids can hone their musical theater skills. The program is divided into junior (ages 7-10) and senior (11 and up) sections and begins Aug. 20.
After nearly two hours of preparation Friday to allow everyone to get into costume and prepare for their roles, the lights inside the historic theater finally dimmed. Willy Wonka, played by Jason Easton, took the stage as the iconic music began to play. After months of practice, it was time for one last dress rehearsal before showtime.
The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].