After 65 incredible years, Brillianteen is having its final curtain call. The student-run theatre program, a long-running tradition at Evanston’s McGaw YMCA, will come to an end with an anniversary revue planned for the weekend of March 4-6.
“Brillianteen has been a lovely program and did a great job over the years, but as part of our mission to continue serving the underserved youth of Evanston we are putting our resources into other programs,” says Senior Director for Youth and Resident Services Sue Sowle.
In fact, Brillianteen was one of the last holdouts at McGaw YMCA as staff started diverting more time and effort over the past several years to programs like the mentorship platform Project Soar as well as Achievers, which provides Evanston Township high schoolers with the tools to complete high school and enroll in college, and MetaMedia, a free and open middle school STEM space that recently opened its doors at the center. “The ‘Y’ has been looking at every program we run for youth in the past five years and asking the hard questions,” Sowle says, “so we can be more impactful.”
Sowle and her staff, also including Brillianteen’s director Kelsey Kovacevich, admit they were worried about the reaction to the news. “It’s become a tradition in families; we literally have kids who are grandchildren of someone from the program,” Sowle says before acknowledging that, while many are sad, most understand the reasoning and are happy that the integrity of the program will live on through scholarships. They will continue to be awarded annually to two Evanston Township High School seniors interested in the arts. (Interested donors can contribute to the fund during the March show dates.)
The idea for Brillianteen originally came from a local businessman, William Harper, who had volunteered at McGaw YMCA and recognized the desire of teenagers to be involved in musical theatre. He built the groundwork for Brillianteen in 1952 as an introduction to Broadway and, perhaps most importantly, designed it to provide the young participants—who are juniors and seniors in high school—with a leadership experience. In so doing, it allows teens to “develop team-working skills, boost their confidence, and [gives] them a greater sense of community and social responsibility …in a non-competitive environment,” according to a statement on the official website.
“It’s all well and good for our students to get on stage and do a show, but the idea was to be something more than that,” says Sowle who says there has been a push in recent years to reorganize Brillianteen as a totally student-driven enterprise. “We recognized that they are also capable of choreographing, designing sets and organizing the lighting and stage crew. They put together the schedule, pick the theme of the show and hold the meetings,” she continues, “and that’s a great experience for a kid. They’ve been our main recruiters who pass it down every year. For the most part these are not theatre kids and they walk away feeling like they found their passion.”
In fact, there have been some notable alumni to come from the program including Broadway actress Katie Hanley who, after working in Brillianteen in the ‘60s, went on to star in the original Great White Way productions of Godspell and Grease. There’s also Mark Moses, the screen and television actor who has appeared in Platoon and Homeland, among others.
“We’ve been reaching out to a lot of the past performers,” says Sowle in an effort to get everyone together for one last final goodbye during the March performances that intends to feature new and old in a compilation of many of the shows that Brillianteen has put on over the past six decades.
“We struggled all summer with what show to do and finally decided the only way to [end it] would be with numbers from our best shows,” says Sowle, noting there has been “about 100” productions of Guys and Dolls, Footloose, The Wiz, even the more recent Disney-geared High School Musical.
“The idea is culmination,” she says. “We want one big party to send it off.”
For more information and tickets, visit mcgawymca.org.