North Texas Performing Arts Commemorates Three Decades with Yearlong Celebration

This year North Texas Performing Arts (NTPA) is celebrating 30 years of nurturing young performers. Since opening its doors, the family of children’s theaters has welcomed more than two million individuals including students, patrons, members and sponsors. NTPA will celebrate all year with its 30th Anniversary Series consisting of eight shows that have been favorites. It started with a kick-off celebration Feb. 27 commemorating “The Wizard of Oz,” the first-ever production put on by the performing arts company in 1991.

“I was going to Grace Presbyterian Church, and we decided to do ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” says founder and NTPA Vice President of Community Outreach Sara Akers. “I was doing a lot of theater with the kids there. And the church just let us do it. We had over 40 kids in the show, and a whole bunch of volunteers.”

Sara recalls tech week – the final days of prep before the show – as both joyful and stressful, as most tech weeks are. But there was a buzz that week among volunteers. Everyone kept asking one another, “What are we going to do next?” They knew they had found something wonderful, and didn’t want it to stop there.

Sara got two friends together, as well as her sister, Rebecca Egelston Caso, and together they founded Plano Children’s Theatre that spring.

Sara Akers and Plano Children's Theatre actors, 1995 // courtesy NTPA
Sara Akers and Plano Children’s Theatre actors, 1995 // courtesy NTPA

Soon after the enterprise began operating, it began to grow exponentially. By the early 2000s, it had expanded to McKinney. Then Fairview called to offer a grant and space, and the program moved there. The theater also expanded to Frisco in 2012, and Dallas in 2016. What was once just a Plano operation became a metroplex-wide youth theater program. Plano Children’s Theatre was now North Texas Performing Arts.

Growing Pains, the Good Kind

Plano is the mothership location, and with growth happening nonstop since the get-go, NTPA outgrew its space near Custer Parkway and 15th Street a few years ago. Sara found herself speaking to groups around town, asking if anyone knew of a larger space they could move into.

“Amy Medford, marketing director at The Shops at Willow Bend [at the time], pulled me aside after a presentation I did at Rotary Club. She said we should talk,” Sara says.

Working for over a year with The Shops at Willow Bend owner Starwood Retail Group, Darrell Rodenbaugh, now CEO of NTPA, finalized a lease, then secured financing and a general contractor and put together a volunteer team of more than 60 people. The general contractor put up walls and installed flooring, but the large volunteer team took care of the rest, coming up with the overall design, as well as painting and installing seating. NTPA was able to fundraise all the money to complete the center.

NTPA CEO Darrell Rodenbaugh, founder and Vice President of Community Outreach Sara Akers, board president Elly Marsh // photo Jennifer Shertzer
NTPA CEO Darrell Rodenbaugh, founder and Vice President of Community Outreach Sara Akers, and board president Elly Marsh // photo Jennifer Shertzer

Willow Bend Center of the Arts is the largest youth performing arts facility in the country at nearly 30,000 square feet. The facility boasts two mainstage theaters, two black-box theaters, two dance studios, rehearsal and practice studios and dedicated set-build and costume space.

NTPA continues to live out its purpose at the center.

“We provide a positive outlet for children, a safe place for them to learn and grow. It’s not really about if they want to become the next Broadway star. That’s great, but there’s so much you can learn just from being in a production,” Sara says. “You learn to be disciplined, to have as positive attitude about the project, to be present in rehearsal, to take care of one another.”

All for One and One for All

“One of the things that drew me to NTPA is that the emphasis is on each child as an individual, rather than comparing students with each other,” says NTPA Managing Director Mike Mazur. “Ultimately, our goal is to help create the next generation of critical thinkers. Emphasizing things like respect, integrity, teamwork really helps create a family atmosphere.”

On top of productions for kids, NTPA offers a therapeutic arts program for young people and adults with disabilities. That program has been around for 25 years. It has a professional repertory with adult actors. It also has an academy offering a full-time performing arts conservatory. Children who participate enroll in an online curriculum, complete their schoolwork in the morning and spend afternoons learning all facets of theater.

Frozen Jr. (pre-pandemic) // courtesy NTPA
Frozen Jr. (pre-pandemic) // courtesy NTPA

Because of the strength of the program, many students have gone on to successful careers in the performing arts. Hunter Herdlicka, a past student, has been in multiple Broadway productions. Kyle Oliver, another past student, is in the Philadelphia Opera. There are NTPA alumni that have danced with professional ballet companies, acted in lead television roles, started their own theaters and worked in production.

Sara feels incredibly proud of what the team of NTPA staff and volunteers have accomplished in these 30 years. But she is most excited about what the future holds.

“We’ve worked hard to make this a stable organization. We’ve built protocols and processes that help sustain how this whole place works,” she says. “I’m proud of the work we’re doing for the underserved, and the work we’ll continue to do for them. Our theater is not just for the privileged few; we are continuously working hard to make it a theater for all.” 

Sara hopes to see each city’s facility continue to grow and expand. She even envisions the curriculum moving into other programs, specifically in underserved areas of Dallas and Plano. She hopes to offer those children the same opportunities that the children who come to NTPA have. 

“We will also continue to add depth to our traditional performing arts offerings, introducing college prep and more adult education and performance opportunities,” says Darrell. “We are also putting in place a major effort to expand our diversity and create a more inclusive and representative community.” 

Cast members of the 30th anniversary production of "The Wizard of Oz" // courtesy NTPA
Cast members of the 30th anniversary production of “The Wizard of Oz” // courtesy NTPA

NTPA recently made an addition to its family – the NTPA Community Theatre. Through this program, family-friendly productions will cast both adults and children, kicking off this summer with “The Sound of Music.” On top of this, they are now offering a curriculum of adult classes in acting, improv, dance and other performance-related studies. The program can serve as a stepping stone for amateur actors to eventually join the professional-level NTPA Repertory productions.

As the celebration continues honoring this big year, NTPA is planning seven more shows. This will include “Mary Poppins” premiering April 8, “Peter Pan” beginning June 17, “The Sound of Music” on July 1, “Little Mermaid” on July 16, “Les Misérables” on July 16, “High School Musical” on October 29 and “Scrooge! the Musical” on December 11.

Throughout the pandemic, NTPA has incorporated a combination of meeting virtually and in person. When conducting class, rehearsal or performances, NTPA adheres to social distancing guidelines, enforces mask-wearing and follows capacity limitations. This way, it can ensure the safety of all performers and patrons. It will continue these policies until CDC guidelines recommend otherwise.

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