Norfolk woman instills passion for theater into local youths

By GRACE PETERSEN | Norfolk Daily News

NORFOLK — Libby McKay was bitten by the acting bug when she was a child.

Growing up in Detroit, McKay said she always liked to perform, sing and dance. She majored in theater in college, as well as the culinary arts.

“So I joke that I was built to be a celebrity chef,” McKay said, laughing. “But that did not happen.”

McKay worked with a couple of different theater companies in Detroit, as well as a community theater company in Iowa.

“I’ve done all sorts of things, from acting, which is my first love, to costume design, and makeup design, directing and choreography, all kinds of fun,” McKay said. “I just like to be part of it all.”

Upon moving to Norfolk nine years ago, McKay quickly became involved in theater

“We moved here and the theater bug doesn’t go away, I think, once you have it,” she said.

The first show she auditioned for was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which she was cast as one of the fairies. She also choreographed the fairy dance.

“I forgot how much I loved this,” McKay said.

Through that performance, McKay mentioned to Adam Peterson, artistic director for Norfolk Community Theatre, that she would be interested in doing some directing. The very next season, McKay was asked to direct “Book of Days.”

“And then from that, I’ve had a hand in almost every show since then . . . I stay busy, which is good,” McKay said. “From a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ now today, I’m front of house manager for ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ . . . trying something new.”

‘Every day is like a week’

McKay also serves as the president of the Norfolk Community Theatre board, as well as director for Norfolk Youth Theatre and Norfolk Youth Theatre Junior—which is a partnership with the Norfolk Arts Center and the community theater. The programs are supported by the Norfolk Area Community Foundation Fund, as well as the Nebraska Community Foundation’s Youth Engagement Grant.

Youths who take part in the camp get immersed into theater, McKay said.

“I tell the kids, we do in five days with you what I do in six weeks with adults,” McKay said. “So every day is like a week for them.”

During Norfolk Youth Theatre—for 10- to 18-year-olds-—youths go through mini breakout sessions, including audition, theater etiquette, stage directions and a tour of the Cox Activities Theater.

That’s just in the morning.

By that afternoon, McKay and her assistant cast up to 60 kids to perform in three shows. Once they are cast, youths go through a series of workshops—rehearsal, acting, tech workshops that focus on manufacturing and procuring props, costumes and set builds. This year, they were also able to incorporate light and sound..

“The past couple of years, we’ve been able to incorporate some of the kids in other tech roles. This year, we were able to have some of them as stage hands, the spotlight operators, fog machine operators,” McKay said. “So we really give them a process-oriented hands-on experience.”

And it instills a love for theater in the youths who are involved.

“We love that we are able to put on great shows with all of the kids, but it’s really, the camp for us is really about that process and nurturing that growing passion and love for theater,” McKay said. “They never fail to amaze me with what they are able to accomplish in that week. They’re memorized in three days. They get their scripts Monday afternoon. They’re supposed to be off book by Wednesday, and . . . it’s amazing. I’m not even 100 percent sure I could be off book in three days.”

‘Tiny people’ on the big stage

This year, McKay also directed the inaugural Norfolk Youth Theatre Junior, which is geared for 5- to 9-year-olds. She said this camp is more developmentally appropriate for the children involved. A total of 37 youths participated, McKay said.

“They got to help make some of their costume pieces. There was lots of painting,” McKay said. “We had 12 cardboard bicycles, and things like that.”

During the junior camp, kids rehearse at the arts center during the first part of the week and move over to the Cox.

“They did that like champs, too. It was very exciting … the big stage with all of these tiny people on it was very funny,” McKay said. “They made the transition really well.”

She said they have received a lot of good feedback on the theater camps from both the parents and the youths.

“I think they like all of the different things they get to do. We really try to nurture the idea that every person that helps to put on a production is important, whether you’re the actor, whether you’re the usher, whether you are the set designer, the rehearsal pianist, you know, whatever it is,” McKay said. “So I think that also has created a strong sense of camaraderie amongst all of the kids, which makes it fun. You like to do things with your friends.”

Connecting with community

The camps, she said, are vital to Norfolk.

“What we really try to do is give kids the opportunity to potentially find out something new about themselves and help to nurture that passion that maybe they already have of the fine arts,” McKay said. “And I think it’s important, too, that the kids see all of the people they are working with are local and didn’t feel they needed to go away to do something they are passionate about and to put on good shows or to use their talent in that way.

“That there’s that ability to contribute to your community and use you talent and to do what you love in the fine arts here and not just in (big cities).”

She also feels having the support of the community foundation is imperative to community development.

“When people are looking at places they want to live, and having been someone who has lived several places now, I’m looking for things I can do for my family, looking for ways I can engage in the community,” McKay said. “I’m looking, especially, for things that I feel like are going to be impactful for me.”

She said the arts can accomplish that in a unique way.

“I feel the arts can impact people in a different way than an outdoor experience or a sports event, not that those aren’t valid, but I feel like there’s something about it,” McKay said. “I think the arts can bring this connectedness between total strangers but you can share this same, cathartic experience. And so I think the work that the community foundation does in communities by supporting the fine arts is providing the opportunity for a different level of connectedness.”