A Well-Balanced Meal of a Season: San Diego Junior Theatre in its 71st Year

by Leorah Gavidor November 27, 2018


san-diego-junior-theatre-piloted-newsies-in-2018-and-will-pilot-disneys-moana-jr“It’s like asking kids what they want to eat for dinner—most of the time they’ll say McDonald’s.” So says San Diego Junior Theatre Executive Director Jimmy Saba. The students don’t usually have the final say on which productions they put on for the season, but the kids do have an influence, as do educators and staff.

“We like to have a well-balanced meal of a season, to make sure our program is creating well-rounded students.”

That means selecting a mix of classics, comedies, fun productions, serious dramas, and new plays.

“We want to make sure we respond to those students who are looking for a challenging project to set them apart. That’s the kind of thing that looks good on a resume.”

And graduates of San Diego Junior Theatre do have impressive resumes: alum Brian Stokes Mitchell won a Tony for his performance in “Kiss Me, Kate” on Broadway and is current board chairman of Actors Fund of America. Casey Nicholaw codirected “The Book of Mormon” and choreographed “Spamalot,” among other shows, on Broadway. Mona Mansour, who writes plays about the Middle East, has shows on stage in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Louisville.

Jimmy himself is an alumnus—he joined in 1977 and stayed in the program for 10 years. Then the organization hired him as artistic director. After three years in the job that was supposed to last a year, Saba moved to New York to pursue his professional acting career. Ten years later he came back to his hometown to take the position of executive director at SDJT.

Even more important to Jimmy than impressive resumes, he said, “is the educational environment” he and the rest of the staff work to foster. “Our goal is to teach skills and provide experiences that help those who go through the program come out as more capable citizens.”

Behind-the-scenes skills count, too. SDJT is unique in its crew program that allows students to take the reins during show time. Jimmy is happy to relinquish control to the all-kid crews that keep the show rolling while their peers are on stage.

“Once the show starts, they’re in charge.” They learn self-reliability, teamwork, responsibility, problem solving, how to deal with pressure—in other words, preparation for life.

When called for, performances include a live orchestra—another unique feature of San Diego Junior Theatre and another opportunity for the students to practice collaboration. Additionally, SDJT designs and builds all of its own sets, allowing kids to witness the sets taking shape from start to curtain.

When past performances of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Mary Poppins” required flying, the students got to see how to set up a fly rig.

“It’s very rare,” Jimmy said of the “flying” experience.

Next up at SDJT in January, “Peter and the Starcatcher” tells the backstory of how an orphan boy became Peter Pan. The play was originally presented in 2009 as a Page to Stage workshop production at La Jolla Playhouse.

Coming up in 2019, SDJT will pilot “Disney’s Moana Jr.” on stage. Disney selected SDJT to put on the new play as a basis for discovery before introducing the work on a larger scale. As they prepare and rehearse for the show, staff will answer questions and provide feedback about the script—from casting, to materials, to whether the songs are in the right key register for kids to sing.

“Suessical the Musical”—with all new sets and costumes—“shows how SDJT is innovating with every production,” Jimmy said. April 26-May 12. Come in pajamas May 3!

For another fun production, check out the lovably irreverent “Pippi Longstocking,” June 28-July 14.

Then, SDJT will present “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in August. With no junior version of the play, the cast will take on the full weight of Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic novel.

Saba is happy to be part of the 70-year legacy of San Diego Junior Theatre, the longest-running youth theatre program in the nation. He is honored to welcome audiences into the beautiful space SDJT calls home, Casa del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park. For many who attend SDJT productions as their first theatre show, the experience offers all the thrills, fantasy, storytelling magic and professionalism of traditional theatre—made more amazing by the fact that kids are on stage.Α


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