On a gloomy, rainy day when the outside world seems to protract a feeling of melancholy and indolence, the Center Stage Kids studio is buzzing with energy.
Kids everywhere, ages 3 to 18, are running around, rehearsing songs and heeding the instructions of their ever-patient directors. Yet despite the chaos, there is an undeniable warmth that radiates from everybody in the room.
In the center of the storm stands Heather Vargas, co-owner of Center Stage Kids and a third-grade GATE teacher at Lakewood Elementary School. With that background alone, Vargas is obviously devoted to teaching kids and helping them achieve their full potential. And from the peals of laughter and constant smiles that light up the room, it’s clear she’s quite good at it.
On her encouraging command, the students launch into a song that they will perform in their upcoming show, a catchy and entertaining number that accentuates their talent. The Christmas-themed show, which takes place at Johansen High School on Sunday, will have two performances, one at 2 p.m. and the second at 6.
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“My favorite part is watching the growth of students,” says Vargas, who has been a part of Center Stage Kids for seven years but only recently took on the job of co-owner when founder Dawn Peterson moved away. Vargas now runs the group with Amy DeMoura; together they produce two shows annually, one in winter and one in spring. “Center Stage Kids is musical theater education. We love to encourage, support and help our students strive to do their best,” Vargas says.
A junior at Beyer High and longtime member, Jolan Glover clearly remembers CSK’s beginnings. “We originally rented out a studio and there was, like, 25 kids in it,” she says. “It was really small.”
Fast-forward nine years, and Center Stage Kids is expanding into the hearts of more than 100 children.
For Noelle Sanders, a senior at Gregori High, singing always has been a passion, but CSK gave her the confidence to perform. “When I first joined, I was really shy. But as everybody began to support me, I started reaching out to people. I formed more relationships. My whole personality changed because of CSK, and it’s a good thing,” Noelle says. Because she was home-schooled until high school, she says, joining CSK helped her become more social and outgoing around kids her own age.
Another home-schooled student who’s now a graduate of CSK, Logan Sisco joined Center Stage Kids four years ago and has enjoyed it ever since. “I loved it immediately,” Logan recalls. “I’d always liked singing, but they made me love dancing,” he says, then adds with a laugh, “No, they literally made me dance.”
Even though he graduated from CSK two years ago, Logan returned as an alumnus and even performs a small role in every show. “I love watching everything come together,” he says. “The opportunities that CSK allots are incredible.”
“As part of our alumni, he has been such an inspiration to the other kids,” Vargas says of Logan. In fact, it’s not just the faculty that provides encouragement; the older students help out the younger classes, as well.
Says Tibari Divone, a senior at Gregori High School, “I love how CSK is interactive and you get to help out the kids. We all treat each other the same.”
Tibari actually joined CSK the same year Logan did, and the two remember meeting for the first time. “I’ve developed a lot of strong relationships here. My first year, (Logan) was my first duo partner. Now we talk all the time and hang out. You develop that bond real quickly in this setting.”
In fact, just entering the rehearsal room, it’s apparent that everybody here is friends in some way or another. Vargas temporarily dismisses the class for a snack break, and the kids disperse in clumps, chatting excitedly and oblivious to the rainy, miserable world outside.
“Everybody is really close to each other. If you’re new, we just kind of adopt you into the family,” Noelle says. “And I love the atmosphere because it’s so friendly and loving. It’s that place I feel safe. You don’t have to be afraid if you’re weird and crazy because everybody is weird and crazy. It’s very nonjudgmental.”
Tibari seconds that statement with a smile. “It’s an open environment regardless of everything. We don’t have it written out in words, but that’s (CSK’s) motto: ‘We want you to be yourself.’”
The other kids nod in agreement. Jolan has been a passionate singer since early childhood and can say from experience that CSK always has been as accepting and supportive as it is today. “Every time someone new joins, it’s like they’ve always been there. It’s all so welcoming, and I like how when someone is growing, everyone acknowledges it,” she says, recalling all the encouragement she received when she took the vocal leap and started singing soprano. Then she adds, “It’s not about perfection. It’s about everybody getting a chance to shine.”
“We want to encourage all of our students to find their inner passion and love for theater,” Vargas says. Of the upcoming performance, she says, “There are always many emotions that I feel a few weeks before the show: nervous, excited, afraid and sometimes frantic to make sure they are taught all the moves in time. However, every year it’s a joy to see the children shine onstage and I’m looking forward to that moment.”
The kids are looking forward to it, too, as is evident from their eager eyes and mile-wide smiles.
“My favorite part about performing is bringing peace and joy to the audience and ourselves. It’s kind of self-fulfilling,” Noelle says. “Honestly, for me, I don’t even need a crowd. I just think it’s fun to work together and create something really beautiful.”
Even though he doesn’t take center stage anymore, Logan still loves the excitement right before a big show. “I love when everything comes together, when the house is full, when the lights turn down, when the curtain opens.” He snaps his fingers, as if to demonstrate the incomparable bliss of the moment. “That rush. That’s my favorite part.”
“It’s a very liberating experience to perform in front of all your friends and family doing the stuff you love to do,” Tibari says. “Even when the show is over, you know you’re going to see them again. People continue to come back.”
Back at the Center Stage studio, snack time is over and things are getting close to performance-ready. As Vargas signals for the song to run again – “From the top this time!” – all the kids scuttle into their places and the scene begins.
And it’s really quite something. The acting and singing thoroughly display all the passion put into this show. Even though it’s only a rehearsal, there’s such great promise swirling around the room, lighting up the kids’ faces like it’s Christmas morning.
To these kids, Center Stage is more than just a musical theater group. It’s like a family. And that, in itself, is a gift worth celebrating.
Kara Liu is a junior at Beyer High School and a member of The Bee’s Teens in the Newsroom program.