Members of Asheville Junior Theater discuss its founding and latest production

JUST KEEP SWIMMING: Asheville Junior Theater's most recent production, "Finding Nemo, Jr.," showcased what co-director Kelly Haas describes as off-Broadway quality. The group's next show, "Wizard of Oz: Youth Edition," runs Saturday, Jan. 20, and Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Ariel Haas

Bridget Roberts didn’t know she was a talented stage performer. But after the 13-year-old Asheville resident found the right people to encourage her dormant singing, dancing and acting skills, she discovered a lot more about herself.

“I found out that I love acting and I love theater,” says Roberts. “It broadens my horizons to things that I didn’t know I could do. And it helps you kind of figure out who you are.”

Roberts is one of many young people whose lives have been enriched by Asheville Junior Theater since the nonprofit’s formation in early 2022. And audiences can soon catch her playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz: Youth Edition, which runs Saturday, Jan. 20, and Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, with performances at 2 and 6 p.m. both days.

Featuring onstage music from local bluegrass band The Well Drinkers, the Appalachian twist on the L. Frank Baum classic follows months of hard work from a dedicated group of kids, parents and volunteers led by AJT founder Kelly Haas. But rather than returning to their proverbial Kansas when the show is done, this unified collective plans on staying in the merry old land of theater for years to come, growing as a group and providing its cast members and crew a distinct artistic experience.

Setting the stage

In July 2020, Haas and her family relocated from San Diego to Asheville, seeking a change of scenery.

Both Haas and her daughter, Gigi, were previously involved in community theater. Sensing a chance to create a distinct, professional-grade experience for young performers, Haas met and partnered with local choreographer Erin Roberts, owner of Mighty Oaks Montessori school in Fairview, to form Asheville Junior Theater. They then added Melena Dillingham as AJT’s director of music and began seeking other like-minded families and collaborators to see their vision through.

“I have an attack-dog spirit. If I set my mind to something, nothing’s going to stop me,” Haas says. “I was just pounding the pavement. I was out there pushing this, trying to get people to donate money, trying to get a website set up, trying to get a place to rent for rehearsals.”

Haas eventually found a space in South Asheville for rehearsals on Fridays and Sundays, but partnering with a theater in the middle of the pandemic proved more challenging. Nearly all such area industry companies were just getting back to in-person performances in late 2021 and figuring out responsible means of welcoming back audiences that felt comfortable for attendees and cast/crew alike.

“I can’t tell you how many ‘nos’ I got for all the different things I was trying to do — just ‘no’ after ‘no’ after ‘no’ after ‘no,’” Haas says. “And I just didn’t stop until I achieved our goals.”

AJT partnered with T.C. Roberson High School for its debut performance, Matilda the Musical, Jr. But plentiful hurdles still awaited, including Haas stepping in to steer the show despite never having helmed a production.

“My daughter had done Matilda three times before,” she says. “I’m like, ‘I could direct the show.’ And that’s kind of how it all started.”

Going off-book

Matilda the Musical, Jr. launched AJT in June 2022. Soon thereafter, the company found a performance home at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, where it’s staged Peter Pan, Jr. and Finding Nemo, Jr. During this time, Haas established the company as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. All funds, she says, go into the next production, which she describes as on par with off-Broadway shows.

“This really is not junior theater,” she says. “We have a costume designer. We have a set designer. We go so full-out on production to give the kids a great chance to really experience what theater can be like.”

To encourage high standards, Haas holds meetings with interested children ages 8-18 and their parents to make sure families are up for what an AJT production requires. Along with children participating in a total of eight hours of rehearsals each week and eventually memorizing their parts (aka “going off-book”), families are required to provide at least 10 hours of volunteer time over the three months that their child will be in the show. Membership fees are also required, but Haas stresses that funds are not an obstacle for involvement.

“I have never turned down a family that says, ‘We want to get our kid involved in this, but we can’t afford it,’” she says. “I always say, ‘Come on, we’ll figure out a way.’ And I find a sponsor or [sometimes] pay the money myself.”

At AJT rehearsals, children aren’t allowed to be on screens during breaks because staff wants to encourage interaction among the cast. There’s also a zero tolerance policy regarding AJT kids posting negative things about each other on social media. Haas believes these guidelines lead to a more powerful bond among the children as well as mentors such as stage manager Grayson Schuck.

“If we put together a team of strong leaders, the kids are going to be that much better,” she says. “I’m not in agreement with that ‘Every kid gets a trophy, no matter what’ type of philosophy. I think that kids need to learn that they need to work hard and put forth as much effort as possible, and they can see that they can do amazing things. But it’s not going to be handed to them.”

In addition to the self-empowerment that comes with the performances themselves, AJT holds a cast party after the close of each production’s run. There, Haas individually compliments each child, spotlighting the strengths that they brought to the show. She notes that the parents especially enjoy hearing someone else say nice things about their kids but considers that aspect a side benefit to what AJT has brought its participants.

“We’ve had a lot of kids that came out of the COVID generation where they were on screens all the time, not leaving their house, having struggles with depression and other issues,” Haas says. “I have a parent who said, ‘You saved my kid’s life because she was going down this terrible path. She’s so different today — doing amazing things, superconfident, lots of friends.’”

Curtain call

Roberts, the youth performer starring as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, says she’s formed tight bonds with several cast members, including 14-year-old Windsor Bishop, who plays Glinda the Good Witch, and Haas’ 12-year-old daughter, Gigi, who plays the Scarecrow.

THREE OF A KIND: From left, Windsor Bishop, Gigi Haas and Bridget Roberts became best friends during rehearsals for AJT’s production of “Finding Nemo, Jr.” Photo by Ariel Haas

Echoing Roberts’ experiences with theater, Bishop says she is grateful to AJT for the opportunity to express herself through acting, singing and dancing — sides she hadn’t explored in depth until her initial role in Finding Nemo, Jr. Meanwhile, Gigi Haas says her dedication to theater has given her greater body control while dancing as well as out-of-body experiences onstage.

“What I love about theater is that you can embody a character that you wouldn’t necessarily get to play. Theater can be so crazy, but it’s fine to be crazy in theater,” Gigi Haas says. “Also, I love when you go onstage and see the lights — it’s very pretty and really fun.”

All three performers encourage other interested youths to give AJT a try even if they’re hesitant about taking the plunge. Roberts stresses that she was nervous before her first rehearsal but now says she has a “passion for theater” and looks forward to seeing her close-knit group of pals each week.

“It’s a really good community,” Bishop adds. “I have made so many friends, and they’re my best friends now. So that’s a really a big plus, but also being able to [take] constructive criticism is really helpful because it helps you be able to be a good actor.”

Such relationships are critical for Kelly Haas as AJT moves forward and decides what shows to produce next. She notes that it’s tough to pick projects that are fun for 8-year-olds and teenagers about to graduate from high school, but that it’s even tougher to recruit young men to partake in the fun. If numbers increase, however, the possibilities likewise broaden.

“The one show that every kid is dying [to do] — and they beg me every time — is Newsies,” Kelly Haas says. “We’re so excited to do Newsies but we need some more boys. And there are other shows like that, too.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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