In pursuit of potential realized at Valley Youth Theatre

A view of a performance of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" at the Valley Youth Theatre in downtown Phoenix. (Submitted photo)

A view of a performance of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at the Valley Youth Theatre in downtown Phoenix. (Submitted photo)

Potential is something we all have, but oftentimes it takes the efforts of others to help us fully realize how strong, confident and intelligent we truly are.

The business of unlocking trapped potential is the primary focus of the Phoenix Valley Youth Theatre, 525 N. First Street in downtown Phoenix, where for the last 20 years Producing Artistic Director Bobb Cooper has been at the helm of a place featuring the work of actors years ahead of their time.

Sunday, March 20 will mark the 20 year anniversary for Mr. Cooper at Valley Youth Theatre while his colleagues — Karol Cooper, resident costume designer; and Mark Fearey, resident music director — are also celebrating 20 years at the downtown playhouse.

Founded in 1989, Valley Youth Theatre is a professional-quality theater company dedicated to helping young people achieve their full potential through meaningful engagement, education and excellence in the performing arts. The theater produces six mainstage shows each season including two at the Herberger Theatre Center.

Since 1989 the Valley Youth Theatre has trained hundreds of aspiring actors and actresses with some even attaining celebrity status — performers like Emma Stone, Kimiko Glenn or Jordin Sparks — while others hit center stages in places ranging from Broadway in New York City to boardrooms throughout the nation.

The range of work Valley Youth Theatre actors and actresses take on later in life is myriad as the training they learn at the small Phoenix theater transcends calculated soliloquies and orchestrated choreography.

“My life has been centered around children and enhancing their lives,” Mr. Cooper said in a Jan. 28 phone interview. “We need the arts, but what makes Valley Youth Theatre something different, is we work diligently to inspire young people to be the best people they can be. For them to be inspired, we, as an organization, we have to be inspiring.”

Mr. Cooper says the skills learned to be successful in theater can transform who a young person thinks they are.

“It is really about helping them find the magic inside themselves — where they can dare to be themselves,” he explained. “We have taken teenage boys with two left feet and made them excellent dancers. Negativity is not allowed.”

A passion project

In the early years of Valley Youth Theatre productions were held in a college, community center and box theater before a three-year lease was struck in the mid 1990s for a basement space in a shopping center.

After converting an old car dealership into the 202-seat theatre now in downtown Phoenix, the Valley Youth Theatre launched its 1999-00 season and won the 1999 DREAMR Award (Downtown Revitalization Effort Awards of Merit and Recognition) for turning the property into a “vital cultural attraction.”

Hope Ozer

Hope Ozer

“Back then there was a very blatant lack of performing arts for young children,” said Hope Ozer, a founding member of the Valley Youth Theatre Board of Directors. “I have always felt that exposure to the performing arts is critical for the development of young minds.”

Ms. Ozer points out the effort at Valley Youth Theatre is an all-encompassing one as the entity offers a comprehensive youth education program, a Sponsor-A-Seat program providing at-risk youth the opportunity to attend a performance and an award-winning literacy and arts program to help inner-city students improve reading skills.

Recognized as one of the most dynamic youth theaters in the country, Valley Youth Theatre has produced more than 150 musicals and plays since 1989.

“All sorts of things come out as a net result due to being involved in theater,” Ms. Ozer said in a Jan. 29 phone interview. “There is an amount of poise and self-assurance and how to be a productive part of life that comes from being a part of theater.”

Bobb Cooper

Bobb Cooper

Ms. Ozer credits Mr. Cooper with bringing the Valley Youth Theatre into a different realm of performance then ever realized by those who come before him.

“When we hired Bobb in 1996, I remember interviewing him. I remember telling the board, ‘if this guy is as good as I think he is, we have struck gold,’” she recalled of the hiring decision. “He has gone beyond anything we could have ever expected.”

Ms. Ozer said her decision was solidified as the right one as soon as the curtain rose on Mr. Cooper’s first production later that year.

“The first show we produced with Bobb was ‘Annie,’” she said.

“That was a Broadway quality show. I am from New York so I am biased, but that was a Broadway-quality show. We needed someone to play Daddy Warbucks and we couldn’t get any at the caliber we needed. Daddy Warbucks needs to be a man, so Bobb shaved his head and did the show himself. That’s when I knew.”

Ms. Ozer says the production at Valley Youth Theatre “ain’t the third grade play.”

“It is a highly sophisticated, high quality theater experience for the audience and the participants,” she explained. “It doesn’t get nearly the recognition from the general public it deserves.”

The magic of performance

Behind the success of Valley Youth Theatre performances are a trio of talent — a costume designer, a music director and a play director — providing a guiding light for participants, parents and community volunteers.
Without the help of his colleagues, Mr. Cooper says the show would not go on.

“I wonder that myself, I would probably say, first and foremost, it would be working with my boss, Bobb,” said Mr. Fearey in a Feb. 1 phone interview. “Pretty much right off the bat when we started working together, we just clicked.”

Mr. Fearey says working at the Valley Youth Theatre has helped him better understand the definition of the word, “talent.”

“Sometimes when you are working with adults, whether it is in their minds or in their ability, they have gone as far as they can go talent or effort wise,” he said. “But if you can get a child to believe in his or her ability and get them to work, well, the sky is the limit. Trust is a big thing, but once it has been established they will go to the moon with you.”

Mr. Fearey says the quality of production — from costume and set design to direction and musical composition — at the Valley Youth Theatre is markedly better than anything he expected when he first took the job 20 years ago.

“Over the years, what we were churning out was at the top of the pile here locally, I always felt,” he said.

“The sheer scope of the productions, I always felt like we were putting out the best work around. And, I think we all work together well and we all strive for putting out a fine product. In addition to that, we both, Bobb and I, we both tend to come at this with a positive nature. The theater world can be a little jaded at times.”

Mrs. Cooper agrees the Valley Youth Theatre is a positive environment built on a foundation of respect.

“They have a great time,” she said of all involved. “They sort of turn into a little family. Valley Youth Theatre pushes themselves, the choreography, the music, the design — we push that bar as high as we can.”

Hard work pays off, Mrs. Cooper contends.

“We push the actors so they can do better than they ever thought they could,” she said. “There is a passion from all aspects of the production.”

That passion for production and the art of theater that blossoms in each production participant comes from the example set by those guiding the production, according to Mr. Cooper.

“Valley Youth Theatre is a place where we can learn from each other. It is a very encouraging environment where we are trying to encourage everyone to be the best they can be,” he said. “We are just using the vehicle of theatre to do it.”

Mr. Cooper says the joy of theater is something all can enjoy — and that’s a charge he takes seriously.

“I believe in the power of positive thought,” he pointed out. “That is our responsibility to be positive for these kids. There are no barriers, it doesn’t matter what part of town you come from, your skin color doesn’t matter. We want you.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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