Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.
Portage Central High School Theatre program is considered one of the finest in the country, with a history of quality productions and superior theatre education. Kathy Mulay, a local impresario and youth educator, started as director of the Portage Central (PC) Theatre Program in the late 1980s. During her tenure, PC’s theater program accepted three invitations to take part in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of the American High School Theatre Festival program, while producing lavish productions and building Portage Central into one of the largest theatre programs in Michigan.
But after nearly three decades, Mulay decided it was time for a change. Filling those shoes would take someone with talent, vision, and an uncanny ability to communicate with students… that person was Ashley Bowen. “Kathy headed the program until I took over in 2016,” said Ashley Bowen, current Director of Theatre Activities at Portage Central High School. Another area native, Bowen had attended nearby Portage Northern High School, where her love of performing began when she joined the forensics team as a freshman. In college, she joined the choral program at Western Michigan; eventually auditioning for the vocal performance program. Each program Bowen has worked with since has risen to her immensely high standards, winning state level awards and national recognition.
Since moving to PC’s theater program, Bowen has continued to challenge students by choosing both classics and innovative modern plays and musicals that help with students’ self development. “My biggest hope for students,” she said, “is that they realize that they have a voice and that theatre is a great place to use it. Theatre empowers young people and builds confidence and skills they can use throughout their lives.”
Doing three shows per season gives students every opportunity to learn about themselves. For Bowen, “My favorite shows are the ones that come together exactly how you envision them: the perfect cast, crew, orchestra, creative team all executing one vision. At PC, three stand out examples were the musicals The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Shrek and Big Fish. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee stands out because, despite every challenging element, the kids knocked it out of the park every night. The actors were fantastic, but I think I was most proud of the students’ technical work. We had a student costume designer and sound designer. It was pretty amazing!” However, Bowen admitted that “Shrek holds a special place for me. The show was so cohesive. Every element worked from the musicians to the technical elements, the performances, and how the audience reacted. There was such chemistry, not only between the actors but between the show and the audience.”
Last year, with more snow days than school days, Portage Central met its biggest challenge yet, Big Fish. With most of their technical rehearsals cancelled, many would wonder if the show could even open. But Bowen and her amazing group of young performers and technicians proved that passion meant more than time in preparation for a performance. Opening night was a success and each night got stronger and stronger. This show clicked with audiences and critics alike, winning numerous awards from the Sutton Foster Ovation Awards committee, including Best Costuming, Best Direction, Best Hair and Makeup, Best Lighting Design, Best Music Direction, Best Set, and Best Musical.
While the theatre program is quite large, with over 100 students participating, it is one part of a larger fine arts program managed by PC’s Activities Director Nikki Smith. “We don’t cross over a whole lot,” said Bowen. But “there are instrumentalists who play in our pit orchestra and, of course, singers from the choir program in our shows. We support each other.”
It also helps that the entire fine arts department uses Ludus for all the concerts and programming. Bowen had met Ludus’ President, Kevin Schneider, through Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA). “Kevin told me he was developing a new program and asked if I would try it. Honestly,” she said, “Every part of Ludus worked for us. And they just keep coming up with new features. There has never been a time when we haven’t been able to contact Zack, Abbie, or Kevin and get an issue resolved within an hour. Other ticket programs feel like I am connected to a computer program, Ludus feels like people.”
The Theatre Program also gets lots of help from parent volunteers. “Our parents are amazing. We do not have official Boosters, but our parents do everything from building sets, running concession and box office, to getting donations. There’s a volunteer Box Office Manager, Kris Fulton, working with one of Portage Central’s administrative assistants, Suzanne Schwanzl, who runs the school side of the box office, doing much of the show to show setup.
Even with her busy schedule, Bowen still finds time for forensics, where she is a Diamond level coach through the National Speech and Debate Association. “We have a fantastic forensics program at Portage Central that was run by Theresa Mills (who retired from coaching at end of 2018-19 school year),” said Bowen. “I coached my own teams for years. I like to coach any event with a student that is willing to listen and work. It is the collaboration that really makes me happy.”
Bowen also performs in local theater, recently appearing in a production of Sister Act and Billy Elliot at the Kalamazoo Civic Theater.
Portage Central will produce Moon Over Buffalo, opening this week, October 25 – November 3, and the musical Mamma Mia on February 7-16, 2020. To learn more about Portage Central High School Theatre and purchase tickets for their show, check out their Ludus ticketing portal at pchsboxoffice.ludus.com!