A Shining Star of Creative Expression: Children’s Theatre of Winnetka

Originally appeared in the Spring 2021 Gazette by Joan Evanich

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The cast of “Sound of Music” on stage in 2016. Photo by Lorraine Ryan.

Children’s Theatre of Winnetka’s directors and some past CTW members have gone on to successful professional performing arts careers, including Beck Bennett (“SNL”), Mary Kate Schellhardt (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Apollo 13”), Broadway performer Betsy Morgan (“Little Mermaid,” “High Fidelity”) and many others who grace stage and screen. Even though only about one percent of alumni become professionals, CTW has been promoting self-confidence, teaching love of the arts, and helping children to grow for decades with their rallying cry, “The show must go on!”

Children’s Theatre program, 1975.

Children’s Theatre of Winnetka has been a shining star on the North Shore for 46 years. It began in 1974 when Community House drama teacher Barbara Weldon approached Executive Director Tom Fritts about establishing a theater company with performances exclusively by children. Fritts enthusiastically agreed and Children’s Theatre of Winnetka was born. CTW’s first production, “A Christmas Carol,” hit the boards in 1975.

A volunteer nonprofit board of directors created in 1976 established the parameters for CTW. They agreed to stage two productions a year and created a policy allowing fourth to eighth grade children to be involved in scenery design and lighting as well as performing. The earliest shows were primarily fairy tales, but gradually classic stories like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” were produced. By the 1980s, Broadway-style productions including “Hello Dolly,” “The Sound ofMusic,” and “Oliver” were added to the repertoire. More recently big Disney musicals like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Lion King” have become popular.

“You Can Fly!” Peter Pan in a 2018 CTW production. Photo by Lorraine Ryan.

Toby Nicholson joined the board of CTW in 2000 shortly after his retirement from New Trier High School where he taught drama and dance for 30 years. During his tenure at CTW, he has acted as co-director, choreographer, and set designer. Nicholson has seen a few changes over the years and explained that some of the shows that were produced in the past are no longer acceptable to today’s audiences.

“So many shows now come under scrutiny due to outdated themes and mores,” said Nicholson. He went onto explain how set design has also changed from conventionally constructed backdrops to the use of animated digital projections and smaller 3D sets. Nicholson said, “It is certainly a lot less work and the projections really help to set the mood.”

“I Got the Sun in the Mornin’ and the Moon at Night.” Young actors singing and dancing their way through “Annie Get Your Gun” in 2015. Photo courtesy of Winnetka Children’s Theatre.

Although opportunities to perform are limited to fourth to eighth graders, alumni sometimes return in other capacities. One such alumnus is Stephen Schellhardt, former director of CTW, who acted in his first production as a sixth grader in “The Wiz.” He said later, “I was hooked!”

In 2016, Schellhardt directed CTW’s production of “Once On This Island.” He said the experience, “brought back so many wonderful memories for me. I was happy to see that CTW still provided a safe, creative, and collaborative space for children to learn valuable skills that are not just used in the world of performing arts, but in the world at large.”

Schellhardt left CTW last year to teach musical theater at the university level. New Artistic Director Aaron Umsted was hired after a thorough search led by Business Manager Connie Yonan and members of the board. Umsted, who has worked as a professional actor and dancer for over a decade, discovered a new passion in educational theater. ■

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