No business like show business at the Memphis Kroc Center

By: David Ibata

Oakley Weddle’s career in show business has been nothing less than meteoric: He’s had lead roles in musicals and has been a main season director and teacher and mentor of children’s theater. Oh, and he also has handled publicity and marketing. Pretty good for a 17-year-old.

Could he have done all this without The Salvation Army Kroc Center in Memphis, Tennessee?

“No way,” said Oakley, a high school junior who’s been involved the past three years with theater for young people at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. “The knowledge I learned at the Kroc Center and Stage Door Productions goes way beyond my years.”

Oakley, who hopes to study theater, directing, theatrical education and marketing in college, is a product of the performing arts program offered by Stage Door Productions in partnership with the Kroc Center. Stage Door is in its fifth season producing shows and running children’s theater camps, and its program is expanding.

“We’re up to six shows a year – two out of our elementary and middle school program, and four for high school students,” said Lindsay Mitchell, Stage Door executive director. “We’re also up to seven camps every summer from four when we started in 2015; and in the coming year, we’ll add spring and fall break camps.”

Recent productions include “Once on This Island,” “Junie B. Jones” and “Elf” – the “Junior” versions adapted for younger performers, with the same musical numbers but shorter, simplified story lines – “and right now we’re working on ‘Mary Poppins Jr.’ It’s such a fun show, and with the new movie coming out, the kids are super excited about it,” Mitchell said.

Stage Door will produce the similarly revised “Jungle Book Kids” and “Lion King Kids” at camps this summer. Each camp is one week. Which means, putting together a complete show with speaking parts, singing and dancing in five days. No pressure!

“The kids will come in to audition on Monday,” Mitchell said. “On Tuesday, they get their scripts. By 5:30 p.m. Friday, they’re doing the whole show – no scripts, everything memorized, and for a sold-out crowd” of family members and friends. “It’s amazing what they do.”

Stage Door also runs a summer internship program in arts education and technical theater. More than 60 rising high school and college students applied, and 40 were accepted, in 2018, the fourth year the program has been offered.

Meeting for 40 hours a week, students received training in Safe From Harm, basic arts, early adolescent psychology and early adolescent teaching methods. They also did choreography, taught music to young children and helped them stage a show.

“It’s just been a huge success,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had people who have left the program to start arts education programs in their own schools.”

It’s an impressive achievement for Stage Door’s three full-time and two part-time staff. “Everyone is very passionate about the mission of working with children and holding them to professional standards,” Mitchell said.

A typical show troupe is 50 to 70 youngsters, though the production of “Lion King” last season had a cast of 90. There’s no problem finding enough kids; the average audition has 120 trying out.

“We’re not able to cast everybody, but it’s exciting to see kids coming back to us for auditions when they didn’t get in a prior show,” Mitchell said. “When they do get into their first show, they feel they’ve earned it. It’s always a good moment when we can say, this is your show, this is the right spot for you.”

The program has seen many of its enrollees going on to greater things.

After playing Young Simba in “Lion King Jr.” in May 2018, Caleb Thompson, 10, boarded a plane to Shanghai and joined the Asia touring company of “Kinky Boots” (Caleb portrayed the character Lola as a child, a flashback scene that wasn’t in the Broadway production).

Caleb and his parents were back home in Memphis in January, and he immediately came to the Kroc Center to audition for a part in “Madagascar Jr.”

Among the older students, one Kroc Center alumnus just concluded three rounds of performance auditions at New York University; another recently finished four rounds of auditions at The Julliard School in New York.

“Our experience of the last five years is, wherever you set the bar for kids, they’ll always reach it,” Mitchell said. “We try to put the kids in a place they can succeed and be challenged, and when they leave after a week, they’ve grown.”

“Our plans are to just keep on keeping on. We’re going to continue to grow and add these new summer camps and expand the internship program and just keep upping the bar here in Memphis for children.”

Oakley was a 14-year-old involved in community theater when he heard through the theatrical grapevine about Mitchell and the Kroc Center.

“People said such great things about Stage Door, so I emailed her and asked if there was any way I could get my foot in the door and help in any way, off stage or on stage,” Oakley said. “She got back to me and asked if I wanted to be assistant stage manager for ‘Annie Jr.’ I helped with auditions and assistant stage – managed the show and loved every moment of it.”

Oakley has performed in 10 shows since then; he’ll play Bert in “Mary Poppins Jr.” He also directed “Junie B. Jones Jr.” last October for children in third through eighth grade. Through experiences like this, he learned that “I love teaching kids and inspiring them.”

When Oakley started in theater, his dream was to become a Broadway star. Today, his aims are broader: He also wants to be an educator, mentor and role model. “I still love acting, but I have such a passion now for educational theater.”

“I’ve learned so much,” he said. “I’m so eternally grateful to The Salvation Army and Stage Door Productions.”