Amanda Weisbrod

In 2006, Elgin Opera House’s new executive director Terry Hale and his wife, opera house board member Stephanie Hale, moved from Portland to Elgin to undertake the massive project of resurrecting the Opera House. In 2019, the Opera House Youth Actors group took home multiple awards from a national festival, evidence that the Hales’ hard work over the past 13 years has paid off.

“When we first moved here, the Opera House was barely on the map,” Terry said. “Now, going to the Junior Theater Festival and receiving such great recognition, there are people all over the country who have heard of Elgin, Oregon, and associate it with the theater.”

OHYA attended workshops, watched performances from Broadway professionals and listened to inspirational talks from industry experts at the 2019 Junior Theater Festival West in Sacramento, California, Feb. 8-10. JTF pulls theater students ages 8-18 from all over the country in an annual celebration of performing arts. This year’s event featured 42 groups, most of which were from metropolitan areas with large theater programs, making OHYA’s success even more notable.

This is the second time OHYA has traveled to Sacramento for JTF West, with their first visit in 2018 earning them the Most Inspirational Performance award. This year, the group’s abridged performance of “Guys and Dolls Jr.” did not disappoint — in fact, the troupe brought home several awards, including the Freddie G. Outstanding Performance award, which gave them the opportunity to perform their opening number, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” on stage for more than 2,000 festival attendees.

“I’m so proud of our kids,” said Terry in a press release. “They’ve grown in so many ways and have proved to themselves that with hard work and determination, kids from small, rural communities can win big. I’m looking forward to expanding the OHYA program into Wallowa Valley and other communities so that more kids can experience the confidence and countless other benefits that come from being involved in the arts.”

Abigail Hale, Terry and Stephanie’s daughter, won the Freddie G. award for best choreography and her work as OHYA’s junior choreographer. Abigail hopes to continue her passion for theater after high school.

“I heard my name and just started crying because I felt like all of my hard work finally paid off,” said 16-year-old Abigail, who is a sophomore attending school online. “JTF has really opened up my experience as a choreographer, and all of my opportunities have grown. Now I can say I’m an award-winning choreographer at such a young age.”

Hunter Adams, a 15-year-old sophomore at La Grande High School, won best performance by a male actor for his performance as the “Guys and Dolls” character Sky Masterson and was praised by adjudicators for his “old school musical theater charm.” Adams dreams of starring on Broadway one day, and judges agreed he has the potential to get there.

“Winning the award for best male actor at JTF made me feel like I accomplished something that would really help me do what I want to do in my future,” he said. “After our adjudication, Steven G. Kennedy, a broadway choreographer, came up to me and told me that I have what it takes to make it on Broadway.”

Adams said Terry is responsible for getting him to join OHYA in the first place at the group’s conception two years ago, and he is thankful for Terry “giving (him) the chance to show what (he) can do and to prove (himself).”

Adams has always known he wanted to do something with music, but he didn’t know what exactly until his grandmother took him to see “Annie,” his very first musical, at the Elgin Opera House when he was 5 or 6 years old.

“Everything from the set to the music, to the acting, to the choreography… everything about the stage felt right to me,” he said. “The Opera House (now) means family to me. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else even in the roughest of times.”

Terry said he couldn’t emphasize enough how “extraordinary” it was for Abigail, Adams and the entire group to win these awards.

“These kids really do put their entire heart and soul into their art,” he said. “It’s not something they do just for fun. It’s something they do because they have a passion and a discipline for the art form.”

In the middle of working on “Guys and Dolls Jr.” for JTF, OHYA put together a holiday musical show as a fundraiser. Each member of the 22-person group had to raise about $2,000 to cover the cost of the trip to Sacramento.

In preparation for JTF, they rehearsed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday in December and January at the Elgin Opera House to learn the show, practice focus and gain stamina.

“We worked hard for what we wanted to do and we had fun while doing it,” said Adams. “This whole experience has opened my mind to knowing I can do theater while having fun with something that I love without feeling like I’m working hard, but knowing that I am.”

Terry said he hopes to take OHYA to JTF again next year, but it might be difficult to make that happen without grant money.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s very challenging from both the artistic perspective and the logistical one,” he said. “At the very end (of the fundraising effort for the 2019 trip), we received a grant for $10,000 from Cycle Oregon. It was really an amazing gift. We’ll have to send them a big thank-you and show them what they were able to do with that money.”

OHYA features actors from cities across Union County and surrounding areas including Baker City and Pendleton. The ability to bring people to Elgin from the entire Northeast Oregon area is something special indeed, according to Terry.

“The Opera House is definitely a beacon for Elgin itself,” he said. “The Friends of the Opera House, our arts program, is a beacon for the greater community at large.”

Terry sees the Opera House as a large part of Elgin’s identity. Adams agrees that, without it, the local arts scene would be missing out.

The Opera House brings something new and different to the community. Sure, the high school(s) and the college have theater, but the Opera House brings the whole community together, not just students,” he said. “I believe that without the Opera House, a lot of kids like me wouldn’t even try to audition or would even have a love for theater.”

To join OHYA, actors ages 8-18 must attend the Opera House’s summer camp. Information can be found at elginoperahouse.com.

The Opera House’s next production, “Mamma Mia!,” will take place from April 5-27. Purchase tickets at the website above or contact Carol Buckley at 541-663-6324 or tickets@elginoperahouse.com .

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