Jill Jeffrey was a like many young actors, making the rounds at auditions and giving little thought to children’s theater–until she stepped on stage in Journey Back to Oz at Gemini Theater Company in 2004.
“I had a strong background in sketch comedy and improvisation,” says Jeffrey. “After getting to know Dennis Palko and Lani Cerveris-Cataldi, the founders and artistic directors of the company, I saw how amazing their creative “duo” was, and I realized how important theater for young audiences was for families.”
Since then, Gemini has been a major part of her work and life. Jeffrey acted in more shows, began to direct, and became the troupe’s executive director in 2009.
“What made Gemini special was seeing the awe in children’s faces,” says Jeffrey. “They really believed our characters were REAL. And children are our best critics; they let you know if you are doing a ‘good job’ or not as a character.”
“I also love that Gemini teaches kids about literature coming to life and that famous, animated versions of these stories are not the original tales.”
Now wrapping Gemini’s 20th season, Jeffrey and her staff have seen through the company’s move from the East End to the well-appointed Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks. There both long-time and new audience members of all ages are making the company part of their arts experiences.
She stresses the value of the arts in nurturing the whole person: “I strongly believe, and know, that a child with an artistic outlet – whether it be theater, dance, music, drawing, etc – becomes a stronger adult. Children who may have difficulty with social interactions tend to blossom through the performing arts, using the stage as a way to express their desire to meet new friends.”
Noting children’s “amazing strides forward in displaying confidence, improving grades, and even improving behaviors that may have been an issue in previous class situation elsewhere,” Jeffrey has seen the impact of arts education and experience in kids’ lives.
Gemini is “one of many places that ensures finances are not a reason to keep a child from accessing the arts,” she adds.
Most productions are adaptations–original shows with music composed by Cerveris-Cataldi. Plots are reworked with positive messages, less scary conflicts, and fewer traditional princess-meets-prince-marries prince endings. In Snow White, the “dwarfs” are “seven little buddies” played by young people. Snow White is sent into the forest to be lost, not attacked by the huntsman.
Jeffrey’s experiences support her conviction that some of the best audience members are children who are often inhibited about engaging completely with the action.
The Fox Chapel native was an undergraduate at Denison where she got more immersed in theater and continued her exploration when she returned to Pittsburgh.
“What most inspires me is that there are constantly new companies popping up, particularly those dedicated to serving youth, and I am always anxious to meet and try to collaborate.”
When she’s not at Gemini, Jeffrey may be found performing with the Amish Monkeys improv troupe or enjoying other theater and writer, including favorite Christopher Durang.
Some young audience members become company members and even parents of the newest attendees. While the productions are geared to ages 2 to 10, the company has built an extended family with young people auditioning for roles that comprise anywhere from about 10 to 80% of some casts–depending on the story. Original adaptations are often revised and repeated within four to 7 years, while new productions are part of each season.
“One of the things we try to teach our youth, especially as they get into their teens, is that this is a competitive field,” Jeffrey admits. “But, I never want that feeling to exist between Gemini and other companies. And I feel strongly that there are ways to really make Pittsburgh have a youth theater seen that many other cities do not have.
As a child, Jeffrey enjoyed “any Pippi Longstocking book.”
“I love the idea of this little girl with an amazing imagination, extreme strength–both physically and of heart, and kindness that she gives unconditionally”–much like the unconditional gift of theater to children at Gemini.
Gemini’s original adaptation of Jungle Book in winter is now followed by a new production of Snow White, on stage Sat., March 25 through Sun., April 9. Show tickets are only $10.
Summer Theater Camps begin in mid-June (registrations available online), and our annual fundraiser “The Royal Ball” will be held May 20, an event for families with entertainment and engagement for all ages. Details on all Gemini events are at geminitheater.org.
Photos courtesy of Jilly Jeffrey.