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    In a theater at 13th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, an audience of about 200 sit with programs on laps, awaiting dimmed lights. Backstage, a cast of nearly 30 — all ages 12 to 18 — pulses with giddy excitement. This is their finish line. They’ve spent all summer perfecting songs, choreographing dance moves, memorizing a script. It demanded eight weeks of rehearsals that lasted six hours every day, Monday through Friday. The week before their first show, they logged 12-hour days polishing the performance. Now, purple light gently settles on what looks like a Caribbean island. The musical Once on This Island begins.

    The show tells the story of a peasant girl uniting social classes in her tropical homeland. It’s the sixth staged performance by the Youth Repertory Theater Troupe of Louisville, a group of teens led by Erica Bledsaw, a 35-year-old who works as the manager of youth education and fine arts at the Louisville Central Community Centers in the Russell neighborhood. She started the troupe about four years ago. At the time, she was working as a bookkeeper at Jefferson County Public Schools, writing plays and performing in community theater in her spare time.

    One night before a rehearsal for a performance of The Color Purple, she had an idea: a youth performing-arts camp in west Louisville. She threw a post up on Facebook with a link to a GoFundMe page for a theater camp that, she now admits, was just a whim, a vision in its infancy. “I came out of rehearsal and I had a $50 donation,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, this works. Now I have to really do this!’” She partnered with Metro Parks and hosted 52 kids and teens for a summer camp at the Shawnee Arts and Cultural Center. Since then, she has landed her job at LCCC and grown the troupe, offering not only a performing-arts summer camp, but free afterschool theater programming.

    Bledsaw animates when talking about the “magic of theater.” She wants any and all youth to experience the stage, from costume and set design to lighting and choreography. Most of the young actors she works with are African-American, and she strongly believes in casting them in roles that maybe wouldn’t otherwise go to a person of color. Her group has performed Beauty and the Beast and A Christmas Carol. “This is the only troupe in west Louisville. StageOne is a children’s theater. But it’s so hard to break into a StageOne or Actors Theatre,” Bledsaw says. “They have what they are looking for, and the kids that come over here aren’t what they are looking for because they’re black. Just point blank. Unless it’s a show that calls for a black character.”

     

    A very young Bledsaw could often be spotted on the staircase in her childhood home, brush in hand, belting out a song. She’d arrange dolls and stuffed animals as an audience and rubber-band a towel to her head so she could dramatically swing the terry cloth like it was long hair. “My mom calls me a ham,” she says with a laugh. She was a staple in church choir and dabbled in performance arts while at Male High School. To this day, if there’s a show tune playing, especially if it’s one of her favorites — anything Disney and Once on This Island — she can’t help but leap in and sing along.

    But when she was little, her parents instilled the belief that the arts were a hobby. A college degree should guarantee a comfortable paycheck. So she studied business management at Sullivan University and worked for several years as a bookkeeper and secretary at JCPS.

    That $50 donation to the not-yet-created youth arts camp back in 2014 snowballed quickly — the summer camp led to the job at LCCC, which then led to establishing the Youth Repertory Theater Troupe. “I didn’t think I could ever find a career in the arts, and now I get to do what I love every day,” she says with a smile.

    Nearly every one of the actors in Once on This Island has been with her since the beginning. When asked about the challenges she must work through as a theater troupe leader, she pauses. “They all have such raw talent,” she says.  “We’re just harnessing it and making it better. I think the hardest thing is making them realize how great they are — the confidence.”

    Two former troupe members have already touched fame. After Louisville native Zach Lindsey competed on Project Runway: Junior, he interned with Bledsaw’s troupe designing costumes. And last year, 10-year-old Chase Phillips, who starred in Bledsaw’s production of Black Nativity a few years ago, was cast as a young Michael Jackson in the touring show Motown: The Musical. Bledsaw, who helped Phillips prep for his Motown audition, says that over the summer Phillips came back to watch one of the Once on This Island performances. “He was like, ‘Ms. Erica, can I be in the show?’” she recalls. “I was, like, ‘What? You’ve hit the big time!’”

    Her troupe is on break until mid-September. They’ll then start ramping up for a winter show she has yet to choose.  “The performance part is my favorite part,” Bledsaw says. “I love to see how it all comes together at the end. We go all out.” While some in her troupe may go on to study or work in theater, Bledsaw knows that lessons learned onstage will benefit them no matter what their future holds. “I do encourage the ensemble to work as a unit. There are no stars. You’re only as good as the person next to you,” she says. “Don’t come in with a big head; if you come in with that mentality, you’re no good to us. We work as a unit.”

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on page 92. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: The Youth Repertory Theater Troupe performs Once on this Island. // Louisville Central Community Centers

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    Part of "33 Reasons We Love Our Arts Scene."

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