Parents have come to think of Christina Roberts and Bussy Gower as the dream team of children’s theater.
“They create an environment where kids are supportive of one another and feel safe to be imaginative,” said parent Lindsay Hicks. “Most of all, they are confidence-builders who empower kids to take risks and try new things.”
Roberts and Gower are co-founders of a new nonprofit theater organization called Mile High Youth Theatre, which offers local youth the opportunity to learn performing skills at an affordable price. Located at 940 Fillmore St., it is the only nonprofit focused specifically on youth theater within a 15-mile radius of Congress Park, Roberts said.
The inaugural semester began in August, serving youth ages 4 to 18.
Roberts, who serves as the executive director, and Gower, the artistic director, are established performers in the Denver area and have 20 years of combined theater experience. They noticed a gap in programming for kids who don’t have access to studies of the performing arts or otherwise cannot afford it.
“Our goal is to reduce barriers to arts access in the Denver metro area,” said Roberts.
Eliminating financial barriers
Low funding in schools is one factor impacting youth access to studying the performing arts. Some smaller schools are contracting with local arts organizations to fill the need, and some schools are eliminating performing arts programs altogether because of budget cuts, Roberts said. Additionally, there are less full-time arts teachers in general, Roberts said, pointing to her experience as a former performing arts teacher at DSST Montview Middle School in Denver.
Prior to founding MHYT, Roberts and Gower discovered that while there are many youth programs attached to for-profit organizations, these programs can only serve those who can afford it.
MHYT plans to focus specifically on that need and is actively working with local schools to find students who are interested in theater but need extra financial support that could be provided by scholarships.
“So many kids have ideas and want to produce work but don’t have a platform or anyone to support them through it,” Roberts said. “We want to bridge that gap.”
The cost for enrollment at MHYT has been meticulously calculated to provide affordable opportunities — about $5/hour during the course of a semester.
MHYT offers sponsorship opportunities to help keep its costs low and the nonprofit sustainable.
Helping solve a youth mental health crisis
Roberts has observed a shift in mental health and behavior among youth post-pandemic, and she and Gower believe involvement with theater and the arts can make a positive impact on youth, specific to mental health.
“Since the pandemic, I’ve noticed a lot of increased anxiety and depression in my students — a fear of failure and (they’re) seeking constant reassurance,” Roberts said.
MHYT has a mission to help combat this by teaching youth some life skills through performing arts. Programming is curated to help students develop various skills, including conflict management in peer-to-peer or adult scenarios, how to better communicate needs, how to work with others, and even leadership skills.
“We want to make sure (youth) have those (learning) opportunities that maybe schools or other companies can’t give,” said Roberts.
Hicks’ children have worked with Roberts and Gower in the past, and Hicks said she has been awed by their growth each time.
“I have one kid who is blindly confident, one who struggles with anxiety and one with a speech disorder,“ Hicks said. But that “doesn’t matter — all kids are ‘theater kids’ to Christina and Bussy.”
Professional performing experience opportunities
MHYT started its inaugural season by offering two enrollment options: classes and full productions. Both are divided by age groups to maximize student growth. Private coaching and voice lessons are not available yet, but hopefully in early 2024, Roberts said.
MHYT classes provide a variety of subject matter, including the foundations of acting, how to prepare for an audition, musical theater classes and musical composition, as well as classes that focus on the general creative process, like how to break down a script.
Collective Creation, which is a class available for preteens, has a loose rehearsal process where a group works together to review written material and put the piece together.
This type of flexibility and inclusivity is unlike traditional performing classes where students are given material and told what to do. By asking for student input, Roberts said students share ideas and work collectively as part of the entire process, which gives them more ownership of their work.
This unique style has been successful with Roberts’ students in the past, she said.
The second enrollment option at MHYT is for staged productions, which requires an audition. Students selected for these productions will have the opportunity to experience the real-deal of performing on stage.
Production rehearsals are three days a week for 10 weeks. The last week before a performance is called Tech Week, which is when technical elements like lighting and costuming are added. Small scale productions will be presented at the MHYT space in a black box, which is a room that has been painted black and converted into a performing space with a small stage and audience seating. Larger productions will be performed at contracted venues such as the Peoples Building and Village Exchange Center — both in Aurora — which will give students a professional experience at a high-audience capacity.
“At the end of the day, it is our job to help them grow and develop character and be ready for the final performance,” Roberts said.
Auditions for the spring semester’s productions of “Mean Girls” and “Finding Nemo Jr.” will occur in December.
Youth interested in auditioning should keep an eye out for a mini audition workshop which will take place this fall, following the Thanksgiving holiday. Roberts said this three-week course was put together to bring comfort to students who are auditioning — some perhaps for the first time — because those experiences can be really intimidating.
“We want (them) to be successful and help (them) grow,” she said.