Changing Lives Through the Arts

by Liz Scoville and Jonathan Wright
Photography by Sheri Zobrist

Nitsch Theatre Arts provides a stepping stone for students to explore and experience the performing arts.

From Peoria Players and Corn Stock to Eastlight Theatre and beyond, the residents of Greater Peoria are no strangers to the region’s wealth of theatre opportunities. Likewise, a range of arts organizations and educational institutions are doing their part to develop the creative and critical thinking skills of our youth. Though only a couple years old, Nitsch Theatre Arts has already become an integral piece of this landscape, offering a relaxed and comforting atmosphere for those just getting their artistic feet wet. Offering classes, productions, travel opportunities and more, NTA welcomes all who wish to perform, learn and find a home in a community that thrives on inclusion and encouragement.

A Creative Foundation
“I’ve loved the arts my whole life—I was one of those kids,” jokes NTA founder Kelleen Nitsch. Growing up in Florida, her childhood was marked by a desire to perform. In fifth grade, given an opportunity to do a special activity during recess, Nitsch was determined to write and direct her own musical. Her teacher gave the okay, which meant a lot to a child just getting started in the arts. “It wasn’t very good,” she adds with a laugh. “The fact that she said ‘yes’ was great, but I think I went home and cried after I did it.”

The following year, a friend invited her to a dance class for “Bring a Friend Day,” and she was instantly fascinated. Her passion and talent weren’t lost on the teacher, who insisted she return as a regular student, and from there, Nitsch’s affinity for live performance took off. “I lived there for the next eight years, basically,” she notes. “I took to it very quickly.”

At the age of 12, while cultivating her artistic gifts, she was assisting her dance teacher with paperwork, answering phones and even teaching classes. By the end of her high school years, she had taken part in numerous dance performances and community theatre productions, which prompted her to pursue a degree in English and theatre education. With modeling and acting gigs which led her all the way to Disney and New York, Nitsch developed a strong creative foundation—and learned some invaluable lessons in growth and development.

“‘If you’re not having fun, stop,’” she remembers as advice from a close theatre friend. “And every time you go into a show, look for two things: ‘How can you challenge yourself?’ and ‘What new thing can you learn from someone else?’ … And that’s been my philosophy to this day.”


Teaching artists Taylor Elizabeth and Kelleen Nitsch with NTA’s Rising Stars and Stage Kids at a dress rehearsal, March 2017

Learn By Doing
When life circumstances drew Nitsch to central Illinois, she quickly dove into the local theatre scene, seizing opportunities to teach and work in various afterschool programs and through the Peoria Park District. With her roots firmly established here, she wanted to do more to expose kids to the arts—to help them “learn by doing”—and before long she decided to start her own organization.

Beginning with six students inside a Eureka church, Nitsch has since cultivated an ever-larger community around youth arts education. Moving from Eureka into Mackinaw, Tremont, Washington and Peoria, Nitsch Theatre Arts now hosts three sessions a year, each serving 125 to 150 children across half a dozen communities. In addition to her dedicated team of teaching artists, Nitsch attributes this steady growth to the support of partner organizations like Eureka College, the Dee-Mack School District, Mackinaw Community Center, A+ Children's Academy, Kim's Academy of Dance, and the Washington and Tremont park districts. “I cannot say enough about them—and the Eureka community as a whole,” she notes. “If we didn’t form these partnerships, we would not be able to exist.”

Within NTA’s programs, students are able to learn about stage and vocal performance, as well as the audition process. The participants in its theatre program, called “Stage Kids,” put on a full-length production at the end of each 12-week session—a “terrifying and amazing” experience, Nitsch adds—while the “Rising Stars” sing and dance in NTA’s community show choir. The intent is to maintain a comfortable and patient environment, she explains, allowing her students—who range from three to 18 years old, including some with special needs—to relax and focus on developing their talents.


NTA production of Alice in Wonderland, August 2016

“We try to work with them on their vocal skills, and how to properly project and support,” she notes. “We’re teaching them the basic foundations of dance... We teach them how to really think about their characters, how to create their back stories... There’s always something [to learn]—that’s what I tell my kids.”

In addition to the Stage Kids and Rising Stars programs, NTA hosts workshops for young playwrights, guitar and violin classes for kids, and brings Shakespeare into the classroom. Chef James Hubbartt from Childers Eatery has guided kids through “Food as Art” classes, while an upcoming adult production of Clue: The Musical will take the form of a dinner theatre, with students developing their acting skills by “waiting” on tables.

Pay It Forward
The talents of NTA’s kids are not going unnoticed. Last year, some of the Rising Stars traveled to Orlando, Florida for the Music in the Parks festival—and wound up taking first place. This May, 16 students will travel to New York City to perform on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid—a decommissioned ship-turned-museum—for Fleet Week, in addition to taking classes with Broadway professionals, among other learning experiences. And plans are in the works to go international, with opportunities at the Tower of London and Disneyland Paris beckoning. These travel opportunities, led by professional artists, offer a unique and immersive experience that’s unlikely to be forgotten.

While past achievements and future plans are exciting, NTA aims for more than trophies and recognition. Growing up, Nitsch says her family couldn’t afford art classes; she attributes her success to school-based arts programs and other community opportunities she was able to participate in. As an adult, she’s seen that issues of accessibility still exist. Now it’s her turn to make sure other kids with artistic dreams have the same opportunities to realize them.

“I know [arts education] saved me—it put me where I am today,” she declares. “We never turn away a child… If a child is interested and wants to be involved, we do everything we can to make it possible. Because I was that kid. So I need to make that happen.”

Confidence and Community
And the kids couldn’t be more grateful. McKinley Zobrist, a 12-year-old from Eureka Middle School, has been involved with NTA since its inception two years ago. She portrays Kaa, the snake, in the current production of Disney’s The Jungle Book KIDS. “It’s great to have something this amazing—that a lot of people love being involved in—so close to home,” she explains.

Isaac Leman, 11, of Goodfield nods in agreement while Eve Yoder, 14, of Eureka, recounts everything she’s learned from Nitsch. “She’s taught me a lot of things that helped me with other auditions. She taught me how to do monologues, she’s helped me a lot with singing, and she’s taught me how to be more confident.”

“Just be confident in yourself and who you are,” Zobrist adds. “It helps you out in auditions and in life, really. Because if you want to, you can connect theatre with almost anything in life.”

By facilitating a tight connection among the students, parents and teaching artists, NTA has created a “family” through which arts education is not just a possibility, but an actualized experience… for all involved. “Everybody belongs,” Nitsch says. “[When] a person feels like they’re on the outskirts and don’t have a community… and you see them become comfortable, you can tell that they feel like they have a place. Those moments are my greatest joys.”

Staying true to NTA’s mission, she adds, will keep it on the path to grow and succeed alongside its students—building confidence in the lives of this generation and the next. “It is arts advocacy. It is education. It is training. It is inspiring dreams, inspiring appreciation… In the arts, we teach so much more than the arts—it just goes along with it.” a&s

NTA’s Stage Kids will present Disney’s The Jungle Book KIDS in the Pritchard Theatre at Eureka College, April 28th through May 7, 2017. Productions of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Jr. and A Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place later this summer, while a new high school group will produce The Addams Family Young @ Part this fall. For more information, visit nitschtheatrearts.org.

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