Teamwork is a keyword, as is confidence.
BY MICHAEL MUCKIAN
MARCH 11, 2023
Now and then: Jake Busher, above, reflects on his experiences on stage.
It’s the rare documentarian who has reels of raw footage delivered to the editing suite almost ready for final production. For Madison filmmaker Greg Jeschke, head of JDog Productions, his latest film, Stage Presents, happened just that way — thanks to the foresight of someone who 10 years earlier saw the social and human value in community theater.
“I got an email from someone who had footage of a children’s musical filmed a long time ago and she wanted to do something with it,” says Jeschke, a former WKOW-TV news anchor who spent more than a decade making short documentaries for that local ABC affiliate and other stations before starting his own company in 2018. “I checked it for video and audio quality and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a time capsule. What a neat thing to have dropped in my lap.’”
That someone was Terry Dvorak, a longtime volunteer stage director for the Verona Area Community Theater. In 2012, while directing a production of Seussical JR., a one-hour adaptation of the children’s stories of Dr. Seuss, Dvorak began recognizing the social benefits for children participating in theater and decided to do something about it.
“I believe theater can be life-changing for children,” says Dvorak, a former computer programmer who gave up her job to care for her children. She ended up taking theater courses at Edgewood College so she could effectively produce and direct children’s theater: “It transforms children, teaches them the importance of teamwork and a good work ethic, and gives them confidence.”
Dvorak had video footage from auditions through curtain calls. The footage included interviews with the pre-teen actors about their theater experiences, which gave Jeschke his point of entry. Jeschke’s crew sought out and re-interviewed many of the actors, now adults, who shared their thoughts on the earlier film, ultimately creating Stage Presents, a 36-minute documentary.
“When I got to play a part like this, rambunctious, energetic…it allowed me to branch out and be someone I think always wanted to be, but theater opened that up,” said Jake Busher, 21 in the new footage.
“(Theater) was a gift,” said Colleen Penwell, whose daughter Grace was also part of the cast though she suffers from Dravet syndrome, a debilitating form of epilepsy. “It was a great thing for Grace and a great thing for our family. It made Grace a more confident adult.”
“Our goal was never to make a great show,” said cast member Alyssa Dvorak, Terry’s daughter, 21 in present-day footage. “It was to create a great experience that allowed people like Grace to feel welcome.”
Stage Presents premiered in September as part of Verona Area Community Theater’s 30th-anniversary celebration. Jeschke also entered the documentary in international independent film festivals, winning awards at several of them, including being named a semi-finalist at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and winning a Critic’s Choice Award at the Black Swan International Film Festival in Kolkata, India. Jeschke is continuing to enter the film in contests upcoming through June.
The film can be viewed free here.
Dvorak recently moved to central Wisconsin and no longer directs at Verona. But that hasn’t changed her thinking or her commitment to the power of children’s theater.
“My dream is that they start showing Stage Presents in school theater programs,” she says. “The kids learn that they may not be the most important person in every project, but there is so much value in cooperating and participating. I think it sends a good message.”