MENTOR: Helping kids to shine is part of Holly Vinson's success.
By David Templeton
Holly Vinson may not be a household name in Sonoma County, but to hundreds of former child thespians—many of whom have grown up into working adult thespians—Holly Vinson is known as the fondest, fiercest force in North Bay children's theater. For 14 years, the L.A.-born director-den mother has run the summer theater camp of the Santa Rosa Players, which over the last few years has been folded into the Sixth Street Playhouse in Railroad Square, where the first show of every season is traditionally Vinson's.
Last month, the Sixth Street Playhouse honored Vinson's years of service by officially naming the annual program the Holly Vinson Summer Theater Workshop. At the ceremony announcing the honor—following a matinee performance of the Vinson-directed musical The Music Man—dozens of adult attendees told stories of how Vinson changed their lives with her patented blend of affectionate Mama Bear coziness and passionate, no-nonsense straight shooting. Over the years, her enduring support and belief in the power of community theater has been the palpable underscoring to all that she does.
"One of the first things I always say to a new group of kids," Vinson explains over a cup of chai, "is that, fine, if they want to be a professional actor, more power to them, but I don't think it's very intelligent to go into a profession where only 5 percent of the union actors are working. But then I tell them that if they want to stay in community theater, if they want to do theater in college, then there are plenty of ways to make theater a part of their lives forever—and their lives will be richer for it."
In 1983, when Vinson first moved to Santa Rosa after 38 years in L.A., the culture shock took some adjustment, especially with Santa Rosa's former lack of theatrical opportunities. She found a job teaching at Brush Creek Montessori School in Santa Rosa, and begun looking for ways to continue the work she'd began in L.A., where she'd founded a popular program called Kids for Kids Theater, which had run for 10 years. It wasn't long before she resurrected Kids for Kids, using a theater she built in her living room.
Before long, she had 40 students taking acting lessons every week on her tiny, makeshift stage, and the regular stage shows she presented there often required four or five performances to accommodate the 200-plus people who wanted to see them. Eventually, she moved into a small spot in the Lincoln Arts Center, where the Santa Rosa Players had a large theater space.
Later, after she'd been approached to direct a production of Oliver, she was asked if some sort of camp could be created for the kids who would be playing the singing orphans and pickpockets. Quick as the Artful Dodger lifting a wallet, the Summer Theater Workshop was born.
"It just came to be," Vinson says. Oliver was followed by a string of popular shows—Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Bye Bye Birdie, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—with Vinson always casting adults in the adult roles but somehow finding ways to incorporate her growing band of theater kids.
"The important thing is finding a show that the kids can shine in," she says. "I have insisted from the beginning that these not be shows with only kids in them, because then the only ones who come are the parents and family of those kids. My goal has been to legitimize children onstage. I want to eliminate the phrase, 'Oh, that's just a kid's show.' Kids can hold their own with the adults, and by appearing in these shows with experienced adult actors, it gives them a higher standard to rise to.
"My students learn a lot," she continues. "And it's not just song-and-dance routines and stage presence and how to memorize and deliver lines; they also learn responsibility, professionalism, independence and cooperation. These are life skills they are learning, not just artistic skills."
According to Vinson, people often tell her they are surprised at how professional the kids seem in her shows, but she insists that they never surprise her.
"I know what kids are capable of," she says. "Kids can do anything."