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Why this company is ‘the highest quality children’s theater you’ll find in Utah’

Soprano Celena Shafer works with students in the Jaks Theatre Company at a rehearsal on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020.
Jaks Theatre Company

SALT LAKE CITY — Jaks Theatre Company is different than most youth theater groups, according to soprano Celena Shafer.

“When people hear ‘children’s theater’ they immediately write it off as unpolished, messy, off tune, and only worth the time of family to watch,” Shafer said in an email. “Jaks is different; it’s polished, clean, in tune and definitely worth your time. It’s the highest quality children’s theater you’ll find in Utah.”

This is one of the reasons professional artists like Shafer and dancer Sarah Hayward, who have children enrolled in the program, have spent the last six months volunteering as coaches for more than 60 youths in Jaks Theatre Company’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” running through Feb. 22.

“Everyone involved with Jaks has been extremely welcoming and enthusiastic about encouraging me to contribute in a way that is meaningful. Working with the performers is my strong suit and is a delight,” Hayward said in an email. “I love that I have found a niche where I can make a difference.”

Dancer Sarah Hayward works with youth students from Jaks Theatre Company at a rehearsal on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020.
Jaks Theatre Company

Shafer, a vocal coach for Jaks Theatre Company, has performed lead roles with New York Philharmonic, Chicago Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Santa Fe Opera, and her favorite place to perform is with the Utah Opera and Utah Symphony.

“I loved singing from a very young age. I would record myself, and listen to the recording over and over. At age 10, I saw a high school show choir perform at our elementary school,” Shafer said. “At age 12, I begged my mother repeatedly for voice instruction, and she found me a voice teacher. I joined the choir, and found where I ‘fit in.’”

Hayward, a choreographer and dance coach for Jaks Theatre Company, was a professional ballet dancer for 18 years, having danced with several ballet companies in New York City including Feld Ballets/NY and as a principal dancer with national ballet companies in Austria and Germany.

The dancer’s introduction to the performing arts came when she was 3 years old and snuck out of her babysitter’s yard to watch a small ballet class next door. Her parents then enrolled her in ballet, and she “loved every moment of it.”

“I believe that a fundamental part of my success in dance came from my years of strict high-level training,” Hayward said. “Jaks fills an important niche in Utah by providing incredible theater exposure for these young people. The performers receive very low cost, high-level training and the opportunity to perform in extraordinary venues. For kids who have a passion for theater this is a godsend.”

Both Hayward and Shafer’s children were introduced to Jaks Theatre Company through friends who were in the program.

“Ben was a very shy, introverted 10-year-old,” Shafer said of her oldest son. “Ben hesitantly went to his first rehearsal ... came home hooked. Ben has grown so much with Jaks. He’s gone from a shy, hesitant 10-year-old, to a very confident 16-year-old who can give the audience a Pharaoh/Elvis performance to remember!”

Shafer said Jaks has since become “a whole family affair.”

“The rest of my family have become involved as a result of Ben’s involvement,” Shafer said. “The parents are incredibly involved. Parents are the stage crew, makeup team, green room supervisors, costume sewers, etc.!”

There are many elements to the group’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” that make it stand out from the crowd, according to Hayward.

“The sets are fantastic (parent volunteers have been creating and building these for six months), the exquisite costumes are custom made for each individual performer by expert seamstresses (also volunteer), the director has devoted thousands of hours to perfecting every detail, the songs are catchy, the kids are really excellent singers, and the dances are toe-tappingly fun (if I may say so myself),” Hayward said.

Shafer said she volunteers for Jaks “because it’s just so dang fun.”

“There’s a tangible energy in the room with each rehearsal,” Shafer said. “These kids are there because they want to be there. They want an opportunity to express themselves. They have a ‘fire’ or ‘burn’ in their hearts to be onstage. They’ve got the raw talent ... it’s our job as the instructors to take the raw energy and talent, and funnel that into a polished performance.”

The singer said she loves seeing the kids shine onstage.

“When I watch them perform, and they ‘nail’ the vocals we’ve worked on, I’m emotionally charged because I’m filled with pride at their accomplishment,” Shafer said.

Hayward said her participation in the arts has entirely formed who she is.

“I have not known a life without the arts,” Hayward said. “As a performer, I don’t think the love of theater and the magic associated with it ever leaves you. It truly brings me joy to work in such beautiful theaters helping to teach and, hopefully, inspire a new generation of performers to be better than they think they can be.”

The dancer said she believes Jaks performers’ involvement in the arts will ensure they, including her own children, “become more confident and self-assured in life.”

“The ability to present yourself in a composed and assured manner today is invaluable in the professional world, no matter what field you find your niche in. Performing also engenders a creativity that can be a great asset in other arenas,” Hayward said. “Finally, I hope that through performing and the opportunities associated with it, my children and their performing friends will learn a broad acceptance of all types of people. Talent is talent regardless of race, size, age or background!”

Shafer said she also hopes her children learn confidence through their participation in the arts.

“Confidence will take you far,” Shafer said. “If you believe in yourself, you can make amazing things happen.”