ELMHURST – Five years ago, summer meant the end of not only school, but children's theater in Elmhurst.
At 14 years old, Helen Knudsen wanted to spend her summer on stage. So, she created DIY Teen Theatre.
"The first year it was very, very small," she said.
Knudsen remembered having to beg kids she knew from other theater productions to play parts in her debut show, even after casting the dozen kids who auditioned.
This year the York High School graduate cast 53 actors who will be entering fourth grade through freshmen this fall for her fifth season of directing. DIY Teen Theatre will also be the first non-professional company in the area, and only the second in Illinois, to perform "Shrek the Musical."
"For me it's pretty hard because I usually get a lot of inspiration from watching a lot of different productions of the show I'm directing," said Knudsen.
With only a few professional productions as inspiration, Knudsen said this production demanded a lot more trial an error. A lot of aspects of a broadway production aren't easily transferred to children's theater. The challenge allowed for a lot more collaboration than her previous undertakings.
"It's been kind of fun seeing what the kids have to offer," said Knudsen.
Now 18 years old, Knudsen says it's much less awkward directing kids a few years younger than herself. From the beginning, she knew she wanted to foster a certain type of atmosphere within DIY.
"We play a lot of games at the beginning of rehearsals," she said.
Knudsen said her cast feels like a family, void of cliques and eager to help each other. As hard as it may be to believe the go-getter remembers feeling shy at rehearsals, she's excited to see her group work so well together.
Many of the older cast members from past shows have taken production roles after freshman year. Together, the teens manage nearly the entire show, from planning a budget and obtaining a production license, to creating costumes and teaching dance. Abi Arnold, 19, also conducts an 11-piece orchestra, which will accompany the movie gone musical with familiar hits like "I'm a Believer."
Knudsen plans to study vocal performance at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts this fall. She knows she would like to keep directing, but she has no concrete plans for DIY. The theatre group has grown so much in size and quality since 14-year-old Helen refused to spend her summer waiting for the next production.
"It's kind of surreal some times," she said.