Appalachian Young People's Theatre celebrates 40 years

For 40 years, Appalachian Young People's Theatre (AYPT) has been putting smiles on children's faces by performing fun and interactive plays for them in the comfort of their own schools.

AYPT brings live theater to school audiences in Western North Carolina, occasionally beyond the region, and targets children from kindergarten to fifth grade. Productions by this outreach program of Appalachian State University's Department of Theatre and Dance are seen by up to 6,500 young people each spring, largely in rural areas and to children who possibly would not be exposed to live theater otherwise.

"It gives children an opportunity to see stories that help make meaning out of their lives," said Professor Teresa Lee, who has been the director of AYPT for the past 25 years. "Theater brings people together in a space to witness something live. It is a shared experience."

A teacher study guide is sent out to all the schools before AYPT performs. Lee said this helps prepare the children for the performance and helps teachers make curriculum connections. AYPT students help contribute and put it together.

The company consists of dedicated undergraduate students from the Department of Theatre and Dance at Appalachian. They are in charge of the entire production including building the sets, rehearsing, loading the trailer and van for shows and managing the tour.

They act as ambassadors for Appalachian and learn skills such as hands-on problem solving, working collaboratively and growing confidence as performers.

"You find out more about the ins and outs of the theater world and professional theater than any other way in a university setting. For me personally, it solidified for me that acting was what I wanted to do for a living," said student Will Gwyn, who has toured with AYPT twice. He graduates in 2013.

"The last time I did the tour, I sat there with all the kids after the last performance answering questions. Suddenly, all the kids started singing one of the songs from the show. I started crying I was so touched. The kids all hugged us goodbye. It's one of my fondest memories in the world," he said.

Alumni from AYPT have gone on to teach theater, assist in writing productions and perform in children's theater.

Nicholas Jimenez, class of 2007, worked with AYPT for two seasons as an actor and a tour manager and now performs children's theater with Virginia Repertory Theatre in Richmond.

"From the production of sets and costumes to performing for the most honest of all audiences, children, touring with AYPT was an educational and rewarding experience," said Jimenez. "It's essential that any aspiring stage performer have touring experience on their resume and AYPT provides exactly that for their student actors."