Voices in the Valley

Lauren Newell performs one of her original songs, "Two Cents." Newell will be a judge in the Voices in the Valley competition. Newell is bringing "Imagine Your Story" to Theatre West.

The national summer reading program theme this year is “Imagine Your Story,” and COVID-19 forced Theatre West’s Lauren Newell to do exactly that.

For the past few summers, Newell has created and directed a children’s musical that toured area libraries to go alongside the reading program.

“Tami Lippstreu originally came up with the idea of writing an annual children’s production when she was approached by various summer reading programs,” Newell said.

Lippstreu is the organization’s managing director.

After hearing this year’s theme, Newell had an idea for a musical about the Brothers Grimm that centered around fairy tales.

“When COVID-19 hit, and it was clear that life wasn’t going to be ‘normal’ for a while, the idea morphed into, ‘How can we use this theme to educate and comfort kids who may not understand what is happening?’” Newell said.

At that point, Theatre West Summer Repertory’s season had been suspended but the crew wanted to continue staying involved in the community.

Since the actors couldn’t perform at libraries, executive director Judy Chaloupka asked Newell to write and illustrate a story that could be turned into a video.

The result was “Patiently Ever After,” a story about two young boys using their imaginations to lift a “spell” that has forced them to be isolated. During the story, the characters meet those found in a Grimm Brothers book.

“I have written and I have drawn, but this was a new project for me to do them both as elements of an entire production,” Newell said. “Once I had the idea for the plot, the writing went quickly. The time went into the illustrations.”

She spent more than 50 hours drawing and coloring, with 35 of them in a three-day period.

“I definitely learned to consider what the illustrations would require before committing to a storyline,” she said.

It wasn’t just the act of drawing for hours that made the illustration process tough, but also ensuring there were enough images to hold the attention of young minds.

“It seems like common sense, but I remember when the realization hit me that I didn’t have the faces and bodies of actors to help me in the storytelling and that every facial expression, movement, scene change, and costume rendering had to be expressed solely through what I could draw,” said Newell.

They brought the characters to life using the voices of several Theatre West actors including her husband, Patrick. He serves as Theatre West’s artistic director and also helped with the recording process.

Other local voices include Theatre West supporter, actor and board member Mary Mumm and Western Nebraska Community College’s theatre professor, Francesca Mintowt-Czyz.

Avery Lux, Dustin Petrillo and Caleb Long have been part of Theatre West for the last two seasons and voiced three characters. Lauren Newell narrates the story and Lippstreu composed the stories soundtrack.

They spent an evening around a microphone reading the story as a script, and then editing took place. The video is currently available for libraries for their patrons but it will be public on twneb.com in July.

She said seeing the group try to make the best of the situation left her amazed and filled with pride and the final result has “the potential to ease the restless thoughts and fears of our young community.”

“We need art in our lives especially during uncertainty, and my favorite part of this project was realizing Theatre West still has the ability to give that to people,” Lauren said.

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Kamie Stephen is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9041 or via email at kamie.stephen@starherald.com.

Kamie Stephen is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9041 or via email at kamie.stephen@starherald.com.

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