More than a Musical

HONORing the Life Lessons of West Side Story



Photography by Catie Viox

Tony. Maria. Bernardo. Anita. The Jets versus the Sharks. Hate versus love. Accepting others regardless of race, skin color, religion or personal beliefs.

Now, with Karen Kilgore at the helm of the upcoming ROYAL Theatre Company (Regional Ohio Young Actors League, formerly the Children’s Theatre of Mason) production of “West Side Story,” you can add HONOR to the list of abiding themes running through this timeless musical.

“I heard someone talking about the word honor at a church meeting, and I got to thinking about it in relation to the kids performing in our production of ‘West Side Story,’ ” says Kilgore, theatre president and production manager for the past 10 years. “It’s one of those musicals requiring a lot of diversity, and I decided to come up with something the kids and the community could tie into with that.”

Hence, the acronym HONOR.

“We are using our HONOR code for the life lessons presented as we rehearse and get to know each other and our differences,” Kilgore says. It’s a simple, inspiring code that Kilgore is more than happy to decipher:

Have fun. “The first thing we tell every kid involved in our productions is, if you’re not here to have fun, you are not here for the right reason. You’re only young once. We feel that kids today have so many demands put on them, and are under so much pressure to perform at too young an age. So we want to make sure they are enjoying themselves and having fun while learning their parts.”

Outdo each other with random acts of kindness. “As they go through rehearsals for ‘West Side Story,’ they learn a lot about and must act out a lot of prejudice, hate and judgment. We help them learn how to turn that negative into a positive, challenging them to use ‘O’ as a reminder to do nice things for others. Take what they are doing on stage and do the opposite.” The kids are also encouraged to come up with ways to give back to the community at large.

Never stop dreaming. “This is really encouragement for everyone at any age. I am reading a book that talks about how you are never too old to dream, even at 70, 80 or 90. We encourage our kids to live every day, search for goals, dream and never doubt you can do something you want to do. If you put enough time and effort into it, there is nothing you can’t accomplish. If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Offer to help others. “We challenge the kids to help us to determine ways our organization can offer to help others in and outside of our Royal Theatre family. We believe it’s important to open our arms to those in need.”

Respect, not only for those whose beliefs and backgrounds are different, but respect for the art of theatrical performance. “We want the kids to appreciate the importance of respect for the audience we are performing for, as well as for the producers, the director and everyone else involved in the production. We also want to emphasize respect for the message we are trying to share. By being on stage performing ‘West Side Story,’ the kids are not just on stage performing a musical, they are opening an avenue for someone else to understand a life lesson.” Tony and Maria, for example, are dreaming about a place where everyone is equal and accepted, but their dreams are marred by society’s ethnic prejudices. 

Kilgore says “West Side Story” is about how miscommunication and the misunderstanding that comes from not knowing – yet judging – each other often leads to tragedy. But in the end, good can come from that tragedy, as the musical also purports the idea that no matter our ethnic origin, we are all pretty much the same, embracing the same hopes and dreams.

“ ‘West Side Story’ is still relevant today, with all the current issues we face as a society,” she says. “It’s more than a musical. It’s a statement of acceptance, love and unity.”

And, thanks to the ROYAL Theatre Company, HONOR.

Show dates for West Side Story, directed by Dirk Doebereiner, are May 26, 27 and 28 in the Mason High School auditorium, 6100 Mason-Montgomery Road, Mason, OH 45040. For tickets and more information about the ROYAL Theatre Company, visit www.childrenstheatreofmason.com.