The Little Tyke Grows Up

by Pat Launer November 29, 2017


wizard_june_2010Do you think your budding little performer is too young to get onstage? Think again.

San Diego Junior Theatre happily accepts children as young as three years of age.

JT, the oldest continuously producing youth theater program in the U.S., is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

In 1948, a children’s theater wing of the Old Globe was the brainchild of its beloved artistic director, Craig Noel. He called it the Junior Theatre Wing.

Now, San Diego Junior Theatre is an independent, nonprofit organization that has affected well over a million young people – as participants and audience members. Many alumni of JT have gone on to acclaim: Dennis Hopper, Raquel Welch, Tony Award-winning actors Brian Stokes Mitchell (“Kiss Me, Kate”) and Christian Hoff (“Jersey Boys”), two-time Tony winning director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin”) and Jewish playwright Karen Hartman, whose “Roz and Ray” was recently produced by the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Get ‘em while they’re young

Junior Theatre provides a comprehensive, developmentally appropriate educational/performance curriculum for students age three to 18, with diverse class offerings, including acting, dance, playwriting, improvisation and directing.

Last season, 2,500 students were enrolled in 93 classes and 21 weeks of all-day theater camps. More than 600 participated as cast or crew in the eight mainstage productions presented in the Casa del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park.

But the kids don’t just stay in the park, performing for a general audience and presenting 10,000 school-day matinees. There are also 37 outreach programs throughout the county.

James (“Jimmy”) Saba, JT’s executive director since 2013, started with the company when he was 10 years old. He went on to become a teacher and later, the JT artistic director. Extending the continuity (a cornerstone of Junior Theatre), he even assisted Craig Noel on four Old Globe productions.

“I love the Junior Theatre community, and I love the San Diego theater community,” Jimmy says. “What continues to make us unique is that we have such a wide reach; we have students from all over the county. We acknowledge differences; we’ve always cast non-traditionally.

“Youth theaters,” he continues, “were, I think, the first to not care about race, or if the mother and father are the same age, or if brothers and sisters look the same. It was a matter of practicality.”

Since Jimmy returned to JT, he has expanded student opportunities through partnerships with a number of adult producing companies, including Cygnet Theatre, Diversionary Theatre, the Coronado Playhouse, San Diego City College TheatreT and the San Diego Symphony.

He’s proud of that, and proud of his staff, two of whom, both Jewish, have a long history with Junior Theatre.
The JT/Jewish Connection

Carla Corder, who started out as a JT student in 1990, is now Communications Director.

She took a different path from most JT kids. She, too, joined at age 10 (“and I kind of never left!” she quips). But she soon realized “I’m not a stage person. I was always interested in costumes, makeup, lighting, sound. I took many technical classes, and crewed almost from the beginning.”

The stage crew, like all aspects of every JT production, is staffed by students. It didn’t take long for Carla to be ‘running crew,’ that is, running the show backstage. She went on to be a stagehand and head electrician at many local theaters, including the Old Globe, Starlight, The Civic Theatre and Poway Performing Arts Center.

Carla’s daughter, Hannah, who also started young at Junior Theatre, followed in her mother’s footsteps, and is now a professional stage manager.

A San Diego native, Carla grew up in East County, where there were few Jews. (“I was definitely a minority there!”)

When they moved to San Diego from Winnipeg, Canada, her family joined Congregation Beth Israel, which Carla attended from preschool to confirmation. At age 16, she became a counselor at CBI’s residential summer camp in Julian, running the photography and arts-and-crafts program for four years. She also taught at the Sid Rubin Preschool at CBI. These positions confirmed her love of working with children.

In college, she studied interior design and art history, but her life was influenced by her childhood experiences at Junior Theatre.

In 2011, Carla joined the all-volunteer JT Auxiliary, serving as Vice President for four years. Then, she was hired by JT as an educational assistant/office assistant, quickly rising to office manager, and now, Communications Director.

“I really believe in the program,” she says, “and I really love what we do at Junior Theatre. It’s so inclusive and nurturing. There’s so much positivity. Theater is as much a team activity as any sport. We encourage self-sufficiency. We give the kids the tools so they can succeed on their own. Being part of a team project, and reaping the rewards, develops a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, self-respect, and a ‘family’ of friends. These are people you’ll know for the rest of your life.

“At Junior Theatre, production and education go hand-in-hand,” Carla explains. “Students have to be involved in classes if they want to be on the mainstage. If they’re performing in two shows, they have to crew one show, whether it’s running the light-board or sound or the box office.”

Carla, who helms a “very Jewish traditional household,” says her Jewish values and traditions apply directly to Junior Theatre.

“Continuity is so important in Judaism, just as it is in Junior Theatre. And the sense of family, which is central to Judaism, is also a major part of Junior Theatre.”
Judaism and Education

JT Education Director Mitzi Smith, who grew up in an observant family in San Francisco, has also been influenced both by Judaism and youth theater.

“My dad came from an Orthodox lifestyle,” she says. “It’s a very important part of our lives.”

She and her husband, and their two-year-old daughter, Molly, belong to Tifereth Israel. To Mitzi, the tenet of Judaism that’s most relevant to JT is the importance of education.

“Every holiday, you’re supposed to ask questions, struggle to understand, and not to give up. Judaism promotes education; it’s ingrained in the religion.”

Mitzi started her theatrical experiences as a performer, in a San Francisco youth theater similar to JT. She attended a performing arts high school, and majored in musical theater at the prestigious Boston Conservatory. She even performed as a soloist with the Boston Pops.

After graduation, she moved to New York, and adopted the stage-name of Mitzi Michaels. She became assistant casting director to Jay Binder of Binder Casting, working on such Broadway hits as “The Lion King” and “A Chorus Line.” From that “intense, intimidating” work experience, she learned about “commitment, self-assertion and being detail-oriented.”

But one day, she says, “I realized that there was something different meant for me. I wanted to take the educational route.”

In 2010, she moved to San Diego to obtain an MFA in Musical Theatre at SDSU, so she could work in higher education. She has since taught at SDSU, USD and Grossmont College, while still managing to perform at many local, professional theaters.

She started at Junior Theatre in 2011, initially as a dance teacher, then an assistant choreographer, then a teaching artist, and in 2014, camp director. This year, she stepped into the role of education director.

“It’s important to me that our artists have a strong background in education, and are invested in it,” says Mitzi. “I think teaching is a specific artform.

“Primarily, I want to maintain a nurturing environment at Junior Theatre. We’re not an elitist training ground. We’re not trying to create theater professionals, or to focus solely on getting onstage. Not everyone in theater is a performer. I like to offer a wide variety of options. We’re more interested in having the students make friends and feel more comfortable communicating.

“My goal,” she says, “is for us to be inundated with students and full to the brim all the time. And to provide new and exciting experiences – all with a focus on education.”

Junior Theatre’s anniversary season, called “70 Years of Storytelling,” began with “Tuck Everlasting” and continues with “Magic Tree House: Pirates Past Noon KIDS” (Jan. 5-21), an adaptation of Mary Pope Osborne’s best-selling adventure book series.

Then comes “Akeelah and the Bee” (3/2-21), the story of a spunky 11-year-old whose sharp mind helps her out of the Chicago projects and into the National Spelling Bee.

Also on the spelling theme, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (3/15-18) is a funny musical journey to a spelling championship by a group of eccentric, competitive teens.

JT is partnering with Music Theatre International and Disney Theatrical Group on a special pilot production of the dance-happy musical, “Newsies JR.!” (4/20-5/13), based on the 1992 movie and hit Broadway musical.

The summer musicals will be “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” (6/29-7/15) and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (7/27-8/12).

Continuity, education, nurturing, storytelling: the bedrock of San Diego Junior Theatre —  and the secret to its 70-year success.

For tickets and information: 619-239-1311,


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