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Arts award honorees include Meridian-based childrens' theater

When Autumn Kersey launched the Treasure Valley Children’s Theater in 2012, Meridian was the only major city in the valley without a local theater organization.
Credit: Jim Max
Members of the Idaho Junior Jammers, from the National Oldtime Fiddlers Festival in Weser, perform the national anthem on fiddles during the Governor's Awards in the Arts at the Idaho State Museum on Monday. The festival was one of 18 honorees in the 2022 awards, recognized for excellence in folk and traditional arts.

BOISE, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

When Autumn Kersey launched the Treasure Valley Children’s Theater in 2012, Meridian was the only major city in the valley without a local theater organization.

Now, the Meridian-based theater company includes an adult troupe of professional actors who perform plays for young audiences; an array of educational programs that run year-round; and a children’s theater company that rehearses and performs plays and learns life skills and values in the process. It has 18 staff members and has worked with “countless volunteers and thousands of kids,” Kersey said. Its aim, she said, is “using the arts to give kids life skills. That’s what I’ve always been about.”

Kersey was one of 18 recipients Monday of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts, a prestigious awards program that every two years recognizes top Idaho artists, arts supporters, arts innovators and arts organizations. Kersey was one of two people in the state recognized for Excellence in Arts Administration, along with Ali Shute, executive director of the Coeur d’Alene Arts & Cultural Alliance.

Others honored Monday included artists, dancers, educators, and Mark Hofflund, managing director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, who was recognized for “Exceptional Service to the Arts.”

Kersey is the executive director and founder of Treasure Valley Children’s Theater in Meridian. “It was really born out of volunteer work I’d been doing in the community since the summer of 2000 with Boise Little Theater and Boise Parks and Rec,” she said in a telephone interview. “I kind of spearheaded their youth summer theater program back in 2000. After years of volunteering, I had a group of parents come to me and say, ‘We need this for our kids all the time, not just once a year.’ And that’s where the idea kind of came to life.”

Many of those families were from Meridian, she said. “At the time, Meridian was the only community that didn’t have a theater organization headquartered here. Nampa had several, even Eagle at the time … and of course Boise was just really well supported. … So we jumped over to Meridian, and I’m so glad we did.”

Kersey was returning from a trip to Australia on Monday and the flights didn’t connect to get her back in time for Monday afternoon’s awards ceremony. But her board chair, Lauren Hamilton, was there to accept the award on her behalf. And Hamilton was one of Kersey’s theater students back in 2000 through Boise Parks and Rec. “She was in the very first show that I ever directed with kids in the summer of 2000,” Kersey said. “She’s now my board chair, 22 years later.”

Hamilton said the program’s motto is “changing the world, one theater kid at a time,” and said, “I know my relationship with Autumn has changed my world.”

“Autumn prides herself on treating people with respect and making sure that everyone knows there’s a seat for them at the table,” Hamilton said. “The number of theater kids, including mine, whose lives have been touched by Autumn Kersey is immeasurable, and she has most certainly changed the world.”

Kersey describes her non-profit organization as akin to “a three-legged stool.” One leg is the adult company of actors who perform for kids, “because not every kid wants to be on stage, but we know, and research supports, that even the act of seeing live theater, quality live theater, can engage empathy muscles and reading comprehension, and is a great benefit.”

The next leg is the educational programs. “We have an incredible staff of professional teaching artists who engage kids in theater and learning about theater, but more importantly, reinforcing our core values in that process,” Kersey said. Those five core values are respect; commitment; courage; enthusiasm and excellence. “We talk a lot about excellence, not perfection,” she said, “but as doing something a little bit better today than you did it yesterday, coming into rehearsal a little bit more prepared than you were in a previous rehearsal.” There’s a focus on using what the kids learn in theater in their everyday lives.

The theater is currently in the midst of a run of seven performances of its holiday production, a special, audience-interactive adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” for which all tickets sold out in just 24 hours. It’s being presented in a 45-seat black box studio space at the theater’s Meridian location, but Kersey says it points up the need for more performance space in Meridian, something she’s currently working toward with other arts groups.

“We’re looking for some solutions right now,” she said.

On receiving the award, she said by phone from the San Francisco airport, “I look at the list of people who are being recognized and who have been recognized in the past and I just feel, just tingly. I feel completely honored to have my name among those people who really have built arts in Idaho and are the mentors I have looked to. … I feel honored, humbled, a little like I’m not worthy, but happy to accept the award on behalf of my entire company and everyone who’s contributed to the company.”

Idaho’s Governor’s Awards in the Arts was established in 1970, Gov. Brad Little said at the award ceremony on Monday, “to recognize achievement in and for the arts in Idaho. Nearly all states have such awards now, but Idaho was among the first to establish them.”

First Lady Teresa Little said it was especially appropriate to hold the ceremony at the Idaho State Museum, “where the stories of Idaho and her people are told to future generations.”

“Today we honor those who tell those stories through creativity, inventiveness, and reverence for history and tradition,” she said. “Their stories communicate our artistic legacy to the future generations so that they will know who we were in our time.”

“We’re here today to honor those who create this work,” she said, “who support and present it, and who teach it to our children.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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