Kathryn McManus and the Spotlight Kids Company

Kathryn with members from the Spotlight Kids Company

John McManus

Kathryn with members from the Spotlight Kids Company

Kaitlyn Strada, Editor-In-Chief

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Senior Kathryn McManus is changing children’s lives one dream at a time. A creative outgoing little girl, as her mom remembers her, Kathryn’s dream has always been to perform. When she was in the first grade at Central Avenue School in Madison, she was assigned to be the dental hygienist in the play, The Kings Tooth Ache. Performing on stage allows Kathryn to “take on the part of someone else and forget about the worries in her life temporarily.” She added, “it is so much fun to take on different roles and experience a different way of living through other’s eyes.”

When she was in the 8th grade, Kathryn sadly realized not everyone had the same opportunities she had such as taking acting and singing classes. At the age of thirteen, Kathryn decided she wanted to change that. She wanted young children to have the same opportunities she was given so she began to give free acting classes to the young children at her church, Grace Episcopal Church. What started as twelve children meeting once a week for singing and dancing classes, quickly turned to 31 children meeting multiple times a week. Two years after she began to teach, she planned her first professional production, Anne of Green Gables. Kathryn then began to call her small company, The Spotlight Kids Company, which has now generated eight shows since it’s start in 2012. Today, Kathryn runs auditions and practices, hems costumes, prints playbills, and run the shows, all by herself. Usually, Kathryn has the help from her younger sister, Kristin who aspires to be in the show business one day. Handling college applications and her company can be stressful at times, however after her 18th birthday, Kathryn hopes to finalize her company making it profitable which will allow her to buy studio space and begin to advertise it. I was able to get an exclusive interview with Kathryn during her busy schedule.

MDO: Why did you want to start your company?

KM: I have been doing dramas and musicals basically all of my life and it has become the most important thing in the world to me. I’ve always been kind of a control freak growing up with three younger siblings, so I kind of just took the next step. I was used to being onstage and I wanted to experience theatre, this activity and art that I love so much, in a new light. In eighth grade I took a few of my closest friends who have the same fire and passion for theatre as I do, and we all collaborated and wrote a play (a really bad play!) and we performed it. After reflecting for a year or two I realized that I really really loved directing and I wanted to keep doing it. Sophomore year I picked up the reins again and directed the full version of Anne of Green Gables the Musical under the company name The Spotlight Kids Company. And now we’re here, doing our seventh show!

MDO: What productions have you done?

KM: The first musical I did was Anne of Green Gables, and I kind of count that as a test run… I was 15, a sophomore, and it was pretty crazy. It was so new to me and my parents and everyone involved but it was so excitingly successful and the people around me really embraced the whole idea of me directing a full-length musical. We had about 30 kids in it and we had one lady at church volunteer to do costumes. The costumes were absolutely gorgeous and the show came together and it was just so exciting and rewarding. That spring we did a show called The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller, and it was so inspiring to see it come to life. We would leave school to take the show to a bunch of special education schools like Matheny and ECLC and perform for the special needs kids there. It was such a different environment to perform in but it was really interesting for both the kids onstage and me backstage. The faculty at the schools were so gracious. If one hasn’t been around that type of atmosphere before, it is definitely a very emotionally daunting environment, and it was very draining to perform for these kids. It was probably our most difficult show but we learned the most. After that we did a small medley of Shirley Temple songs, calling it “Shirley Temple Storybook” and taking it to nursing homes and assisted living to perform. It was so much fun. The kids tap danced and sang and everyone loved it. It was very uplifting and happy compared to The Miracle Worker. A year after Anne of Green Gables, we did The Christmas Doll. It was a very foreign show because we were doing the New Jersey premiere and therefore no one knew it. It was a lot different than any other show we had done up until that point. It was very dark and sad which really took the kids’ acting to a whole new brilliant level. The next show was in the summer, Annie JR. It is one of my favorite musicals so I had no doubts that the kids would love it too. It was (in my opinion) the best show we have done thus far. The kids were so responsible and dedicated and it really showed in the performances because they really were flawless. There were three sold out shows and it was so exciting to watch them. And now we’re doing an abridged version of The Sound of Music and I am just overflowing with pride and happiness because it is going so well.

MDO: What do you like most about directing?

KM: I’d have to say the kids are just the best part about doing what I do. They continue to inspire me everyday, even if there is a bad rehearsal or they lose a costume piece or forget a line. It’s amazing to see them grow with every passing day, both as actors and as people. Theatre really is a discipline. It teaches you to be responsible and to strive for perfection. These kids are my pride and joy and sometimes I’m living vicariously through them because I care so much about them and the show. To see them from the nerve wracking audition day to opening night in full costume and makeup is just so rewarding and amazing and I just love it so much. Their constant dedication and persistence inspires me to be dedicated and to always keep going. They never fail to put a smile on my face and I love each and every one of them.

MDO: Please describe your favorite production.

KM: My favorite production would have to be Anne of Green Gables, though it’s really hard to choose. It was my first one and it really sparked my love for directing and I think it is the reason why I continued. The Anne stories have always been very near and dear to my heart because my grandma loves them and my ancestors are from Prince Edward Island, which is where the show takes place. The show was so hard to do but taught me so much about myself and the world around me. Doing the whole show basically by myself really helped me to see both the business side and the fun side of theatre, which I think will really help me later on if I continue on this path. The kids were particularly amazing in this show because they really were the ones guiding me through the process. It was a very collaborative process with choreographing and blocking and costumes and sets because we all worked together and combined our talents to present a truly meaningful and beautiful show. It really had a huge impact on me. The day after closing night I cried the whole day in school because I already missed it so much!

MDO: Who is your role model and what do you aspire to be?

KM: I have a lot of role models, but I guess it really starts with the Broadway stars who I’ve looked up to all my life. The list is quite long but they’re all worth mentioning. Kara Lindsay, Sutton Foster, Stephanie J. Block, Laura Osnes, Sierra Boggess, Samantha Barks, Kelli O’Hara, Kelli Barrett… The list goes on and on. These women are so inspiring to me because they have achieved what I have always dreamed of achieving. My dream has forever been to be on Broadway and they are just evidence that maybe one day it could happen. I have watched endless show bootlegs of Sutton Foster in Little Women and Anything Goes and Kara Lindsay in Newsies and every time I watch one I just want this more and more. I’ve met a few of them and they are so down-to-earth and just divine and I yearn to be as lovely and successful as they are. Of course there is my amazing mother who helps me out with anything and supports me through everything, and there are other motherly figures in my life as well. I couldn’t do it without the support of my family and  everyone else around me.

MDO: What show are you doing now?

KM: Right now we are producing Getting to Know The Sound of Music, an abridged version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical. One of my personal favorite musicals ever, I am so happy to bring it to Madison and to be working on it with the kids. It’s not easy though. In the past we have always done shows in the traditional auditorium style theatre, but with Sound of Music we’re trying something new. We’re creating our own small black box theatre at Grace Episcopal Church with the audience on three sides instead of just one facing the front. It’ll be very different for both the kids and the audience but it will be a learning experience. I know it’s going to be an amazing show and I cannot wait. We’re set to open December 4th!

MDO: What is your next step?

KM: I am hoping to pursue musical theatre in college and beyond. I am staying home so I continue to direct my shows because I really think that is what I want to do for the rest of my life because it brings me so much joy. Of course I would love be on Broadway, but for now I’m content hanging with my kids and producing amazing shows. I’m looking forward to making our shows bigger and better and I’m very excited!

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