Sheridan Arts Foundation’s Young People’s Theatre: Then And Now

Ten years ago, when a starry-eyed go-getter named Jen Nyman (now Julia) arrived in town to build a young people’s theatre program at the historic Sheridan Opera House, Telluride pulled its Missouri stunt: “Show me, “ we said. Jen did. Big time.

Her response to the skeptics – “Really, we have Mudd Butts, who needs more kid’s theatre” – was to make like the lead of her first ever production, “Peter Pan”: pointing to the second star to the right, Jen led the way into the future.

 At first, a small but adventurous group of boys and girls followed: “Initially it was as though we had to pull kids in off the streets, going to the school on bended knee to build our cast of 27,” explained Opera House director Ronnie Palamar. Today, Jen has 150 young people, ages 5 – 18, enrolled in the Sheridan Arts Foundation’s Young People’s Theatre program, with others waiting in the wings hoping to get in.

“At the start of our second decade of children's theater, we continue to operate as we did at the start, remaining true to the idea of a non-competitive and child-centered theatrical experience,” said Jen. “We plan to continue to innovate, programming with fresh and original scripts, creative casting choices, with kid-originated ideas incorporated into all performances.”

To celebrate a decade of packed houses, Jen decided to mount encores of some of her most popular plays, including “Peter Pan.” “Grease,” and “Charlottes’ Web.”

Who is Jen?

Today she is a wife, mother and beloved director/mentor, but growing up Jen Nyman Julia was a theatre brat. Her parents ran Starflower Productions in her hometown of Winslow, Maine, where actors from all over the country visit to appear in the Nymans’ musicals. 

Jen holds a B.A. in acting and playwrighting from Bennington College, and an M.A. in drama education from the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

Jen’s acting credits include an original one-woman show, “Sis,” which depicted the life of Margaret Chase Smith, the first female U.S. senator.

She starred as Nancy, the tart with a heart, in The REP’s “Oliver,” a role that called for her to kiss one of her students. They worked it out with as little embarrassment as possible. After all, the show must go on. 

This past October, Jen appeared in another original play, “The Bus Ride,” based on her childhood in rural Maine. In that production, a fundraiser for the Opera House, Buff Hooper played her childhood best friend and Jeb Berrier directed.

Jen was artistic director of the Starflower Children’s Theatre Workshop and an Acting techniques faculty member at the University of Southern Maine Young People’s Academy.

Her career teaching drama to kids began when she was still a kid herself, only 17, when a New York coach was a no-show for one of her mother’s workshops. 

“My first children’s play was ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ with a cast of 22. Somehow, I pulled it off and was hooked. My challenge became finding a way to ensure the kids owned their characters.”

Jen honed her skills directing young people by watching her professors closely, focusing on what and how they taught.

Later, at grad school, she would learn why theatre is good for kids, how it stimulates young brains and the learning process in general. “Theatre is the ultimate learning tool, because we gather information through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic responses to our world. Drama impacts all the senses. I have taught an entire, well-rounded curriculum based on a play.”

When Jen was about to finish grad school, she called various mountain resorts to find a new home for herself and her work. Lucky for us, one of the numbers she dialed was SAF/Opera House, where director Ronnie Palamar and her board had the vision to give her a shot. 

The gamble paid off: Watching their kids on stage, watching friends do something they had never done before, audiences fell in love with the new young director. Suddenly acting was cool – even for soccer jocks.

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