If there’s one thing that energizes Bethany Larson, it’s the opportunity to inspire young people beyond what they could have imagined for themselves.
Like the time she complimented a teen-age actor on his ability to play the role of a grandfather in a stage production of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It was his first featured role and he was very encouraged by her comment to his director.
“It reminded me how important our words are,” says Larson, 52, who founded Journey Theater in Vancouver. “It’s great to see kids work hard and be dedicated, get a line or a solo, or get the part they’d always wanted.”
She distinctly remembers the feeling, having “fell in love” with musical theater as a junior high school student. She continued theater through college and later, while living in Spokane, signed up her 6-year-old son with Christian Youth Theater.
She tapped into her lifelong interest as a teacher at the theater, quickly learning that they were there not just to train youth for theater roles, but to provide positive mentorship with high expectations.
Older students mentored the younger ones, and everyone had the same commitment to putting on shows, from making costumes and sets, to selling refreshments during the shows.
“I felt like it was teaching kids to work together with all sorts of people,” Larson says. “My son was 8 and making friends with 18-year-olds with the same values. And I loved that everybody worked together to make sure the shows happened, and the pieces came together.”
When her family moved back to Vancouver, Larson talked to CYT’s national office about opening a branch in her area. The following year, that branch opened and they began offering summer camps. To date, thousands of students have benefited from their programs and shows, and there are two more branches in Washougal and Beaverton.
About seven years ago, Larson jettisoned its license from the national CYT and became a stand-alone nonprofit, renamed as Journey Theater Arts Group. She enjoys her role as supervisor of the three branches, having hired alumnus Stephen Pick as executive director last summer.
They produce 12 musicals each school year with a cast that ranges in age from 8 to 18. They draw an audience of about 25,000 annually.
“We’ve been blessed with so many great teachers, artistic team leaders, and parents,” Larson says, “and people who’ve rented venues to us since we don’t have our own (performance and class) spaces. I’m thankful and wouldn’t have had things any other way.”
She also enjoys that Journey Theater is a “family affair” and a “huge team effort,” where youth work both on- and off-stage, working as actors, crew members, running lights and sound equipment, and designing sets. Family members step in as volunteers, building sets, creating costumes and props, and contributing to whatever needs to be done.
Journey is funded by show sponsors, ticket sales, donations and grants. The theater has five full-time office staff, and hires teachers and artistic team leaders.
Its most recent shows included “The Wizard of Oz,” “Annie,” Lion King Jr.” and “Scrooge.” Upcoming shows will be “Honk,” Into the Woods Jr.,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer TYA” and “Mary Poppins.”
Larson believes the quality of the shows is what helps draw large audiences. Performers rehearse five or six weekends, followed by four nights of dress rehearsals until opening night.
“Theater teaches hard deadlines,” Larson says. “You can’t change opening night. It’s deadline-focused, and the kids work hard.”
Her three children were involved with Journey Theater as they grew up and two of them still help. Larson says the theater’s focus on mentorship and leadership has been especially rewarding.
“It’s rewarding to see kids work hard and be dedicated,” Larson says.