New Star Children’s Theatre stokes the creative talents of Ottawa youth, inspiring confidence through challenges and old-fashioned fun
At 15, Rhiannon Sterne is a veteran actor, about to star in her tenth production.
A performer with Ottawa’s New Star Children’s Theatre, she has, for the past six years, been singing, dancing and acting her way around the city, making theatregoers smile and learning more about herself at the same time.
New Star is a family-run company that has been bringing out the best in some of Canada’s youngest singers, actors and dancers for the past 36 years.
The company is the brainchild of Carole-Ann Walker, who conceived the idea while employed as a social worker in Trenton, Ont. in 1977. Bringing together her extensive
performing background and the troubled kids she worked with, New Star was created after her oldest daughter wrote a play.
Walker felt they could bring it to life, and the town of Trenton soon rallied around the production.
“It was cool because the town opened their doors to us,” says Walker. “It was a huge success. Everybody loved it.”
She brought New Star to Ottawa in 1990 (a chapter also opened in California in 2002), and while Walker is still very involved behind the scenes, her daughter Melanie Walker, who grew up performing with New Star, now manages the company.
New Star welcomes all children and focuses on musical theatre, producing two major productions per year, along with a Christmas program and weekly summer camps.
Fees, ticket sales and one or two fundraisers cover the costs of running the program, says Walker.
Occasionally, children are referred by a teacher or some other organization, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
“We simply feel we must give back to kids who will benefit,” says Walker.
Past productions include West Side Story, Wizard of Oz and Annie. In April, they performed Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
The objective is not to create a perfect performance, but to challenge young performers during their journey to opening night.
“Our prime age group is 11 to 14, and 90 per cent of the kids who are in our program are in it for fun,” says Melanie. “They are in it for the social element, for the friends they meet. It is a safe place, you can take chances and nobody will laugh.
“You can fail, and it is OK.”
The key is to avoid a stuffy classroom type of learning. Children learn by doing, and all who join get a role in the plays and are also expected to help with set changes and stage crew roles.
And they like to shake things up.
“We don’t cast traditionally,” says Melanie.
“We cast to challenge people, so we don’t necessarily cast the girl in the princess part, we’ll cast her as the boy. Or this actor needs a singing challenge, so we’ll put them in a role that makes them sing high.
“If you want to be an actor, you’re better off being versatile than only doing one thing all the time.”
And departing performer Rhiannon Sterne agrees with that sentiment. Her final production will be the same play she first did with New Star six years ago — and as she leaves to focus on her studies, she reflects on how much she’s grown personally from the experience.
“When I first joined, I didn’t really like to talk to people, so it kind of helped me to be more social,” says Sterne. “It helped me to be a bigger person.”
Thirty-six years after starting New Star, nothing makes Carole-Ann Walker happier than to hear that her program has made a difference in children’s lives.
“We want them to go out feeling confident, like they’ve accomplished something and are ready to meet the world.”
Photo: Dan Neutel