Once upon a time far away from the Arizona Highways, in New York City, a 5-year-old girl in pigtails sat mesmerized staring onto the stage from her 7th row center orchestra seat. The show was the “Nutcracker” and to this day, I still remember that magical, tingly feeling I had deep down inside as a voice inside my head whispered everything and anything is possible once the lights go down in the black box theater. I could imagine becoming whatever I wanted to be. 

A few nights ago, as I sat orchestra center on a velvety, cushy seat inside the cozy Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix looking up at a dozen or more kids in brightly colored costumes singing and dancing their hearts out to scenes from Valley Youth Theater’s “Shrek,” I experienced a similar feeling. These kids could become whatever they wanted to be. 

When my mom took me to see my first show or the countless other musicals that followed, I couldn’t have realized how the arts would have a profound impact on my life.  The obvious is that I went on to become a theater arts major in college and pursued a short-lived acting career.  The less obvious is that it gave me the confidence to move to numerous cities throughout the country pursuing my passion and then at two different times switch careers mid stream and start all over again.  It goes back to the childhood belief that anything is possible. 

 I, like my mom, wanted my daughter to experience the wonder and magic of the theater and the endless possibilities the arts seem to inspire.  I started her theater going tradition on this side of the Mississippi when she was 3 years old, with “Winnie the Pooh Christmas Tale” at Valley Youth Theater in Phoenix.  

Like me, my kid was hooked. Since then, we’ve seen almost every show put on by VYT.  We’ve also loved the shows at Grease Paint, Childsplay, Phoenix Theater, Desert Stages, Gammage and even the Great Arizona Puppet Theater. There was a time we were going to the theater every weekend and in the summer, to my amazement, my shy little girl sang in front of an audience on stage at both Valley Youth Theater and Phoenix Theater in their summer programs.  Just for the record, my daughter has no aspirations to follow in her mom’s footsteps in either acting or broadcasting, but what I believe she has learned from her ongoing exposure to the arts is something that goes far beyond a textbook. Just like so many of the characters brought to life on stage, she has great empathy for others, a vivid imagination, loves to laugh, is not afraid to cry, and is confident just being herself.  

This summer in New York City, we saw a musical called “Dear Evan Hansen.” One of the major themes of the show was about teenagers struggling to fit in. I was initially concerned that the subject matter was not age-appropriate for my now 12-year-old, but when we left the theater, I realized I made the right decision. Immediately, we began discussing why it’s so important to be inclusive and how one kid can make a difference in another kid’s life simply by being kind. 

As soon as we got back to the hotel, she reached out to all her friends telling them about this show and why all of them should make an even greater effort to reach out to other kids, especially if they seem to need a friend.  I know she and I have had these conversations countless times before, but the impact this musical had on her this night was profound, as she too sat staring at the stage from her orchestra seat in that black box theater as the lights went down. 

— Robin Sewell is the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award

winning Arizona Highways Television.