Sam Jones literally points out all of the changes that Davenport Junior Theatre has made in the past five years.
“This lobby itself is 3,000 times different than it was five years ago,” the Davenport Assumption High School senior and a 13-year veteran of the program, said while walking in an area with improved lighting and a counter for ticket sales and concessions. There’s also handicapped seating in the Nighswander Theatre, a better lighting system and a parking lot just off Eastern Avenue.
But there’s also an abundance of new programs and new ways to get involved, Jones said, and he said the credit goes to artistic director Daniel DP Sheridan.
“He’s helped to get all the professionals in and work with us,” said Jones, who plays both Robert Louis Stevenson and Capt. Smollett in “Treasure Island,” which is onstage this weekend and next at the Nighswander Theatre. “When I first started mainstage, it was basically just a director, and the director did everything. Now they’ve got a whole crew of adults working with us, and they’re making the shows better,” Jones added. “Honestly, he’s made us rival some of the professional companies in town — and it’s awesome.”
A Davenport native and Junior Theatre alum, Sheridan received his bachelor’s degree in theater from St. Ambrose University and his master’s in acting from the University of Connecticut. He began working at Junior Theatre four years ago and also serves as the performing arts director for the Davenport Parks and Recreation Department.
Sheridan passes the credit to an 18-member teaching staff, many of whom are regulars in various Quad-City theater companies.
“It’s crucially important, not only for Junior Theatre, but for artists in the area, to practice their craft and be paid to do so,” Sheridan said. “Their collaboration makes a difference in the lives of the kids and the life of the program.”
The numbers prove that it was the correct decision to bring him back to his old stomping grounds. Five years ago, there were 350 enrollments — with some students taking more than one class — in Junior Theatre. This past year, the number cleared 1,500. For the first session at which Sheridan was in charge, there were seven classes. In the just-completed session, there were 23 theater classes and 15 dance classes.
Sheridan delved into the history of the program early in his tenure, specifically reading the notes and memoirs of its founder, Mary Fluhrer Nighswander.
“Treasure Island” director Thomas Alan Taylor, also a Davenport native, said his only experience in the program was a one-week summer camp. Looking back, Taylor said, he wishes he would have gotten more involved as a youth.
“Despite how much fun they have, they really are more professional than a lot of adults I’ve worked with as an actor,” he said.
“They’re having a blast and working hard. There’s a fearlessness and willingness to try anything that you ask them to do — no matter what they look like doing it. It’s really refreshing.”
Amanda Grissom of Eldridge began with the Junior Theatre program two years ago and wonders what took her so long.
“I never really knew how much I loved acting until I came here. Acting is my favorite thing now, and I didn’t know that until I came here,” added the home-schooled sophomore. “Junior Theatre is a place where I can be myself while pretending to be somebody else. I love it here. I would live here if I could.”
Jones says he’s glad for the respite that Junior Theatre has provided.
“It’s a place that’s always here for you, no matter what. No matter what’s going on in my life, I can come here and have fun,” he said. “It’s a way to get away.”
Sheridan said the theater is still in an improvement mode. Immediately, $3,000 needs to be raised to reach a $7,000 goal that, coupled with funds from Davenport Parks and Recreation, would result in a $20,000 challenge grant from Riverboat Development Authority. The deadline is March 1, and Sheridan is confident the rest can be raised by then, even noting that the youngest performers in the group have been dumping piles of change on his desk since the fundraising effort began.
He has other plans for the future, but wants to put them before the Junior Theatre board prior to making them public.
“If we continue at this rate, we’ll have to think of something bigger, greater, grander and make sure we’re here for the 100th anniversary,” he said, “in 39 years.”