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Don Dowdell ’11, Shawn Thorgersen ’98 and Heather Van Velsor ’99 (Photo by Robert Amsler)

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Theater kids. For generations, they’ve lived among us as quirky high school and college students. Driven by their love of the arts and supported by their tight-knit community, theater kids subscribe to the highest order of expression: being themselves.

But what becomes of a theater kid when he or she grows into a theater adult?

Well, just take a look at these three grown theater kids in the photo above. Theater adults are just as happy, free spirited and content as their younger versions. As for these three theater adults, they get to spend their time sharing their talents to eager audiences across Long Island and beyond — with a little help from their puppet companions.

if_might-mythos_single-barMuch like the equally expressive liberal arts student, theater kids Shawn Thorgersen ’98 and Heather Van Velsor ’99 graduated from St. Joseph’s with an open pathway to realize their futures. Bearing degrees in English/education and speech, respectively, the two moved from St. Joseph’s like sponges absorbing cultures, careers and lifestyles.

Thorgersen worked as a teacher in Longwood Public Schools in Middle Island, New York, then completed his M.F.A. at Southampton College and moved to Denver before returning to the East Coast. Van Velsor relocated to New Jersey to work in the education department at the McCarter Theatre Center for the Performing Arts in Princeton before moving back to New York and working as a teaching artist.

It took nearly a decade of self-discovery before the two found themselves reunited under that all-too-familiar foundation of the stage. (Oh, and along the way, Heather and Shawn began dating and were married in 2007.)

“I was working for a theater company,” Van Velsor says, of reuniting with Thorgersen. “One of the tasks they put me on was to reach out to local high school teachers to find out what curriculum they were studying so we could pick our season appropriately. I knew Shawn was an English teacher at Longwood. My friend told me when he was back in town. I think she had ulterior motives too.”

Collaborating under the umbrella of Van Velsor’s ThinkBig! Theater Arts — a multidisciplinary theater arts company offering community and school programs, as well as performances for young audiences and families — the couple went to work building shows, providing workshops in local schools and helping other theaters grow. 

Though it wasn’t until this year that ThinkBig! generated its own production.

After a year of rewrites, workshops and revisions, Van Velsor and Thorgersen’s first original show, Mythos, was accepted into the prestigious 2014 New York Children’s Theater Festival. 

“Michael Shawn Lewis, a Broadway producer, gave us some notes on the characters,” Thorgersen says. “In May we crawled into this terrific off-Broadway theater, The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. And we put on quite a show.”

After wowing audiences and fellow production companies during their New York performance, Mythos was even invited to open later this year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Drawing from four myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Mythos joins the stories of Pandora, Daedalus and Icarus, Arachne, and Baucis and Philemon. Participating in stories featuring hand-crafted shadow, hand-and-rod, papier-mache and marionette puppets, Mythos’ characters teach how to behave with wisdom and kindness, while engaging the imaginations of family audiences.

In fact, a major factor in building Mythos was that touchstone of family — something Van Velsor and Thorgersen are extremely passionate about, especially when it comes to their Long Island roots.

“I had [Mythos’] first production meeting with the [off-Broadway producers],” Van Velsor says. “They were giving me a list of casting companies and production companies and puppet builders all from the city, and I said ‘That’s great, and your lists are resourceful, but this is going to be all Long Island.’ This is going to be Long Island actors, stage management, lighting designers, sound designers.”

That concept of family also led to the participation of Van Velsor’s longtime friend, Don Dowdell ’11, who just happens to be an SJC alum as well. Dowdell, a product of the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale, who earned his child study degree at SJC in 2011, now works as a substitute teacher while earning a master’s degree in literacy. A marionette specialist, Dowdell reiterated just how refreshing the Long Island theater family was in getting Mythos and ThinkBig!’s future off the ground.

“We received great support from the community as a whole,” Dowdell says. “Working with the different theaters on the island who gave us space, time, resources, staff, materials. It was amazing how much everybody reached out … it’s just such a collaborative effort.”

The Long Island-strong team was thrilled to promote Long Island theaters and their hardworking workers. Especially on the big Manhattan stage during their Mythos debut.

“It was fabulous to take what Long Island has to offer,” Van Velsor says, “and bring it to the city for a little bit and say, ‘Now you know we exist! We’re doing really good things out here, you should see what’s out here as well.’”

An inviting, open-door policy to include all interested minds willing to work and learn together — the credo of the theater kid.

“There’s room for everyone here,” Van Velsor says. “Even if you’re not a performer, even if you’re an educator, even if you have an idea and you don’t know how to get it off the ground. Keeping the arts alive in a different way. You see something and you want to figure out how to make it happen.”

“[ThinkBig!] was a dream, and now it’s becoming a business,” Thorgersen says. “And we’re in development for a second show. And we’re looking to grow and grow.”

And Van Velsor, Thorgersen and Dowdell are making it happen. Inspiring more creativity and originality wherever they perform and collaborate, and generating a new generation of smiling, free-spirited theater kids in the process.

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