Wabash County Visual Performing Arts program to celebrate 30 years with changes

by Emily Armentrout


The Wabash County Visual Performing Arts program began in the summer of 1985 when the Indiana Department of Education expanded their definition of “gifted and talented” to include the visual and performing arts.  The program is going into its 30th production year, and as it did in 1990, it is bringing changes that will allow the program to encourage more students to be a part of not only the theatre program but also the art program.

Lavonne Sparling, Chief Academic Officer for MSD of Wabash County, was a part of the original planning committee when the program first got its start. After the IDOE changed their definition of “gifted and talented”, the committee “learned of an opportunity to apply for an additional grant, specifically to design a program for students talented in arts or music,” Sparling told The Paper.

When the program began, it was a joint effort between the local schools, then including Peru Community Schools, as well as MSD of Wabash County, Manchester Community Schools and Wabash City Schools. The committee consisted of the four superintendents at the time, local art and music teachers, and professors from Indiana University.

“MSDWC was the fiscal agent for the gifted grant in the early years, so I was the program coordinator,” Sparling continued.

The IDOE eventually changed the definition of “gifted and talented” again, back to purely academics, and the program was no longer allowed to use the grant money for arts programs.

“The VPA program was considered so valuable that the three Wabash County districts agreed to pay their portion to keep it active.”

Peru started its own program after finding transportation to be a difficult task.

Judy Ward has been involved with the VPA for 29 years. Ward and her late husband, Don, became a part of the program after their son joined the second year of the theatre program.

“I’ve been the coordinator somewhere between 15 -20 years. Lavonne decided she had other responsibilities at MSD. She talked with me and thought I was the logical person,” Ward told The Paper.

Ward had been playing the piano and working with the publicity since she started in 1984.

The first major change that Ward, along with the help of other VPA volunteers, brought to the program was splitting the theatre program so that students could continue beyond sixth grade. Since 1990, the theatre program has been split into an elementary group and a high school group. This change was inspired in part by Ward’s own son, Ed, who didn’t want his experience in the program to end so quickly, along with the urging of other students who also wanted to continue on in the program.

This year, those groups will be splitting again. 2014 will mark the first year of a 2nd and 3rd grade group. This will allow 2nd grade students to become exposed to the theatre and it will offer 3rd grade students an opportunity to be the lead in their performance. The second group will include 4th through 6th grade students. The oldest group is made up of 7th through 12th grade students.

This year, the youngest group will be dancing and singing along with some rock and roll classics in Rock and Roll Forever: How it All Began. Those performances will be matinees on Saturday, June 21 and Sunday, June 22. The 4-6th grade group will be participating in a western play, about a chili cook-off, called Katastrophe Kate. You can catch these performances on Friday, June 20 and Saturday, June 21, at 5 p.m. The 7-12th grade students will be performing Oklahoma on Friday, June 20 and Saturday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m. All these performances will take place at the Honeywell Center and are free to the public.

There are also changes coming for the VPA summer art program. The art program used to be one large session for all student age groups, but it will now be broken into two different age groups, allowing the older students to participate in more specialized projects. The younger group will be 3rd through 6th grade students, with Manchester students meeting at Manchester Elementary, and Wabash City and MSD students meeting at the Honeywell Center. The 7th through 12th grade group will meet as one, at the Honeywell Center with busing provided from Manchester for students in the program. The older session will offer multiple projects including fused art, textured landscape collage, weaving and a painting project.

“We decided it would be really nice to split the groups and give more specialized projects for the older students,” said Ward.

As the VPA continues to grow and add to its rich legacy, its partnership with the community continues to grow as well.

“It’s an expensive program,” Ward told The Paper. The program has class fees, but also offers scholarship opportunities available in an attempt to include all students interested in the program. Offering these opportunities, attempting to keep class fees as low as possible and making the experience the best it can be for the students is a costly effort for the program.

Ward has “worked hard to find grants and ensured the future by helping transition the program to the Honeywell Center,” Sparling told The Paper.

If you are interested in partnering with the VPA to help continue the opportunities they give students, you can visit them at Miller’s Furniture on June 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for their port-a-pit chicken fundraiser. You can also send donations to the Honeywell Foundation, earmarked for the VPA.

The Visual Performing Arts program has alumni like Denis Hennelly, Wabash native and Hollywood director, Jessica Keffaber, Southwood High School theatre director and current co-director of the 2nd and 3rd grade play, and Cathy Gatchel, Director of External Relations for the Honeywell Foundation.

“Denis’ father once told me that the VPA helped Denis get his start,” Ward told The Paper.

“I think VPA is a great program that gives kids exposure to the arts,” Keffaber told The Paper. “I think the most important thing is going to be encouraging the students’ interested in theatre and making the experience as much fun as possible,” added Keffaber.

“It is a wonderful program. It is the type of program that if the VPA didn’t exist, the Honeywell Foundation would want to create, because its art. It’s our mission. We don’t want this legacy to go away,” said Gatchel.

Along with these alumni, Ward is seeking out other students that participated in the VPA over the years.

“We’re trying to construct a database of all the kids who have participated in the summer theatre program. At this point, I think I have 1,050 different students. We are going to try and get in touch with as many as possible,” added Ward.

Ward is hoping to invite former participants back for the Saturday performance of Oklahoma so that after the curtain call, the alumni can gather on the stage for a performance of their own. If you are a former participant of the VPA theatre program, you can contact Judy Ward at 260-571-2279 or judyw9538@gmail.com. Also check out www.honeywellcenter.org and click the survey link located at the bottom of the page.

Posted on 2014 May 06