PRINCETON — Founded in 2004, Festival 56 has since shined in the spotlight of the city’s stage and has become an integral recognizable attraction in Princeton.
While those in costume receive the most accolades, there’s a vibrant world behind the curtain. The complicated process of staging multiple productions each year also provides opportunities for education and community service.
AmeriCorps, the federal civil service program which is also supported by donations from foundations, corporations and other private donors, helps create opportunities for those entering the workforce. Each year AmeriCorps places thousands of workers into situations where they’ll learn, earn money, and develop an appreciation of community involvement.
Amber Harper, a member of the Princeton Theatre Group Board of Directors, said they were fortunate to have three AmeriCorps volunteers, as well as four high school interns this year to help with this season’s productions.
Funded through a Youth Employment in the Arts grant from the Illinois Art Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, they earn a living wage, receive an educational award and have the distinction of participating in a national service position.
“AmeriCorps has been a phenomenal asset. Nicki Butler runs Camp 56; Taylor Tieman works with Basic Bill; and Frank Monier completes the opening night Talk Backs. They collaborated on “Meet the Plays” and also do other jobs around the theater. We’re crossing our fingers AmeriCorps will continue to exist,” Harper said.
Each of the four high school interns is assigned a mentor. Intern Terry Bivins has been working with master electrician Eric Hofer; Kimmy Duong works with costume designers Cody Lindau, Natalia Votinova and Chloe Vollenweider; Jace Rediger has been assigned to props and stage management with Benjamin Gallegos, Emily Roth and Kenneth Church; and Cameron Tieman has been gaining experience through set construction work with carpenters Danny Drust and Katarina Licameli.
“(The back stage crews) are often overlooked for the individuals who light up the stage. These are professionals in careers we don’t usually see in Bureau County, and the fact our youth gets to experience these individuals and learn from them is phenomenal,” Harper added.
The AmeriCorps experience
AmeriCorps volunteer Nicki Butler, 21, is working toward her elementary education degree with a minor in theater arts at Eastern Illinois University and will be graduating in the spring.
The AmeriCorps pledge begins with “I will get things done for America” and is a part of what motivated Butler to join.
“I joined AmeriCorps at 18 and fresh out of my first year of college. I wanted to do something useful and productive for not only myself, but also the community. An opportunity came up at Festival 56 for a student to co-direct their youth theater camp ... it felt like fate. Ever since, I’ve served with AmeriCorps at Festival 56 and have been “getting things done” while also inviting my community to learn about theater and the arts,” Butler said.
Butler said serving with AmeriCorps has complimented her college studies and provided real-world experience as a teacher.
“I’ve gotten to work with kids to teach them about theater and what it can do for a community and ourselves, through intelligent scripts with meaningful messages. My job is to teach to think and act with an open mind and heart; I hope to bring this to my future students as well. If anyone ever has a chance to join AmeriCorps, I would completely encourage them to join; it has changed my life for the better,” she said.
Butler has worked with Festival 56 for five years and served with AmeriCorps for four. While in high school she was drawn to the theater and wanted to continue to learn more about the world of the stage.
“Five years later I’m teaching kids every summer about what I love ... it’s the best. It’s amazing to be working with others to make art for others to enjoy and learn from,” she said.
While Butler has been instructing those new to the stage, she’s continued to learn herself.
“I’ve learned so much working here. From my theater students I learn about empathy, kindness, and looking at problems from a new perspective. Being in a building with so many amazing actors and crew, I’ve learned how to communicate effectively and how to collaborate and bring our talents together to make beautiful art. I love learning and growing here,” Butler said.
The intern experience
Intern Terry Bivins is 17, from Wyanet and is a student at Bureau Valley High School. As the head technician for plays staged at school, he already knows how much he enjoys the work of putting on a show. He knows time at Festival 56 is providing new skills for when he returns to school.
“Working backstage and mixing shows has been fun; this year I got to work with lighting as well, which has shown me a lot of things that I hope to bring back to the high school,” Bivins said.
He said his experiences with the festival have been great, and he’s amazed by how much the small group accomplishes over the summer.
“This experience has definitely swayed my opinion of theater as a main occupation in a positive way,” fellow intern Jace Rediger said.
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