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Dordt College News

Honest work

January 11, 2009

Kimberly Jongejan Teaches Kids About Life Through Theatre

When Kimberly (Dykstra) Jongejan was in kindergarten she discovered the theatre. She was an angel in the Christmas play. She sang a solo. Then and there she fell in love with performance art.

"My parents were immensely supportive,” says Jongejan. Taking piano lessons, attending lots of cultural and  theatrical events, singing in the choir—all of these became parts of a childhood where she learned about her gifts and prepared for a life doing what she loves best.

When she graduated, Kimberly Jongejan ('94) didn't expect to support herself with her theater major. She has been wonderfully surprised to find the perfect fit in her job with a children's theater in the Denver area.Today Jongejan helps children discover that same love. Married to fellow Dordt alumnus Philip Jongejan and the mother of three daughters, she is the director of the Northglenn Youth Theatre program in Northglenn, Colorado. Since 1994 the program has provided young people ages eight to eighteen with an opportunity to participate in large-scale, professionally directed shows. Jongejan joined the staff in 1996 as a stage manager and technical assistant. In January of 1997, she was asked to direct. Now her cast and crew mount three to four shows per year, and she has missed only a handful since she started— two for the births of two of her daughters, and one other when she offered an assistant the opportunity to direct.

Under her direction the theatre has earned high honors. Local publications have named it the “Best of ” and “Reader’s Choice” in children’s theater, and it has received the most national honors of any youth theater in Colorado. This past year Jongejan earned an “Outstanding Direction” award from the National Youth Theatre organization for her direction of Into the Woods. The show garnered six nominations with five awards in all.

“Knowing the caliber of my peers in other states, it was an amazing honor,” says Jongejan. More than 180 different shows and companies participated in the competition. She credits her Dordt instructors, especially those in the theatre department, with providing her the skills to excel.

“I can specifically point to each one and express how they molded me through constructive criticisms (whether I wanted to hear them or not!) and through example. The staff was integral in laying down the foundation. Sometimes I regret not listening to them even more carefully!”

When she graduated from Dordt in 1994, Jongejan had earned both theatre arts and communication degrees. Her first love was theatre, but she didn’t expect to make a living in it and planned to fall back on her study of communication. Now she acknowledges how blessed she is to have solid employment—complete with benefits, leave, and vacation time—in the field she has loved since childhood.

The city of Northglenn, a suburb of Denver with a population of 30,000 people, has always been supportive of the arts. Recently one of sixty-seven cities to be named “Playful City USA,” it has always firmly supported its cultural programs. Besides directing the city’s youth theatre program, Jongejan also oversees cultural class offerings such as drama, dance, art, and music, as well as a summer concert series and other special events. She also sits on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Theatre Guild.

The Northglenn theatre program draws children and teenagers from the greater metro Denver area and sometimes even beyond. Actors of all experience levels are welcome. Some are new to the stage, while others have already worked in other theatrical productions, commercials, or movies. NYT works to give young actors a safe, encouraging, challenging, and rewarding environment where they can discover their talents and learn to work with a group toward a common goal. The actors really love what they do. Audiences love it too. Shows are often sold out in advance. Her study at Dordt taught her that every artist should have a clear motivation behind each production.

“I want to be honest,” says Jongejan. “I want to honor my talents and gifts as well as those of the kids.” In each show she strives to sincerely convey the writer’s intended message. Her idea of honesty goes deeper than the surface notion of just telling the truth. Every choice, right down to the very practical matters of costume and set, must reflect the genuine intention behind the story.

Take a recent production of Stuart Little for example. One of Jongejan’s goals was that everything about it would feel like it had stepped fresh out of a coloring book. Keeping even the smallest choices consistent with this larger vision, the costumes and elements of the set were outlined in big black lines and colored in with crayon-like strokes. While the coloring book idea seems to fit well with the fact that this is theatre for children, Jongejan pushes to break new ground with every show.

She does this by having high expectations regarding what her actors can handle. Many children’s productions use a version of the script that has been modified for performances by children. Instead of choosing these modified versions, Jongejan usually chooses the longer, more complete original. This can get tricky, and she is always careful about not exposing her actors to anything inappropriate for their age or experience. However, part of her notion of honesty is that kids can handle a lot more than what people give them credit for.

“I feel a strong responsibility to preserve their childhood but to not dumb down their experience. This means assuming they are able to handle the material. I set the bar high, explain my expectations, and then support them the whole way.”

Jongejan explains the difference between a less-complicated version of a story and a deeper version this way: Any of today’s children’s movies, especially those that retell old fairy tales, provide an ending where everything turns out wonderfully. The original versions of these stories are rarely so neatly buttoned.

The success of Into the Woods is a clear example that this approach works. Her actors were delighted to be doing the real version, and she has been thanked repeatedly by parents. Allowing her actors to work with this more complicated material gives them a way to connect with a story that more accurately reflects real life. As a result, she believes, acting can help them craft their own views of the world and their place in it.

“As I watch children, I can see that the perspective they take [in a show] affects how they approach life. Honesty on the stage makes the transfer to real life.”

Jongejan didn’t initially plan to work with kids, but now she feels such an immense blessing from it that she wouldn’t do anything else. Her work continues to deeply affect her already well-grounded faith.

“I see how God has planted talents in every person. I know that he expects me to use the gifts he’s given me to further his kingdom. What a blessing to impact young lives.”


KRISTEN CNOSSEN NICHOLS

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