Odyssey Theatre

By Kai Yamanishi

To most people in Mount Vernon, the word “Odyssey” means very little. Perhaps they might think of the ancient Greek poem, or maybe a long journey they went on, but to young actors in Mount Vernon, it means more. To them, “Odyssey” means Odyssey Theatre.

Odyssey Theatre is a longstanding part of Mount Vernon culture, having existed for over 20 years. Founded and run by Karla Steffens, it is a theater workshop for children and teenagers. It takes place twice a year, at the beginning of summer and in the early winter. In total, it provides a place for over 100 people to get involved with theater each year.

The people that do Odyssey are an eclectic bunch. Some are as young as 3, others are in their retirement years. What unites them all is a passion for theater.

While the majority of people participating in Odyssey are in elementary or middle school, there is a small group of high schoolers as well. These students provide a different perspective on Odyssey, as many of them grew up working on the shows. They are almost all dedicated interns, a catchall term for those who help manage all aspects of the program. Most are techs, those who design and build the set, lights, and sound, as well as moving the set during shows. Others spend their time working with younger students, passing on their knowledge and skills. Some do a bit of both. As a bonus, any and all of these roles count as volunteer hours towards a blue cord at graduation. One Odyssey show can give as many as 93 volunteer hours, well over half of the 160 for the cord.

Sophomore Jasper Rood passes a board to Freshman Eli Krob. Photo by Kai Yamanishi

These high school students have a lot to say about the program, almost all of it overwhelmingly positive. One of these students is Jasper Rood, a sophomore. Rood is perhaps the most theatrically involved student in the school, with well over 30 shows under his belt, 23 of which were with Odyssey Theatre. He said that the most important thing that participating in Odyssey has taught him is responsibility. He said, “When I was ten years old I played Peter Pan … I missed a full day of blocking … and didn’t know all of my lines … During the show, I missed a cue and was late for a scene.” He said that that the experience, though embarrassing, has helped him grow as a person and as an actor. He eventually was entrusted with another lead role, and, “managed to not screw it up.”

Sophomore Kaylynn Burgin demonstrates how to use a miter saw.
Photo by Kai Yamanishi

Another high schooler who has done Odyssey for a long time is Kaylynn Burgin, a sophomore. Burgin first participated in Odyssey eight years ago. She came from an acting background, having starred in two award-winning short films produced by her father. However, after three years she moved to the technical side of the theater and hasn’t looked back. She said of her decision, “I’m more of a hands-on person, and the tech gave me a better feeling that I was getting something accomplished.” She also said that it taught her to never be afraid of being herself.

Senior Kate Margheim works with two elementary school students.
Photo by Kai Yamanishi

A student that has impacted literally dozens of others through Odyssey is Kate Margheim, a senior. In the high school program, Margheim is best known as the props mistress, but in Odyssey, she is the director’s right hand. She is the stage manager, set designer, and friendly face of the program. She works with the kids each day to help them put on the best show possible, as well as doing set design work and, of course, props. She said of her Odyssey experience, “It has really helped me develop leadership skills by putting me in leadership roles.” One group of students she has an even greater impact on are the tech students.

Senior Kate Margheim demonstrates the light board to the tech students.
By Kai Yamanishi

The tech students are middle schoolers grades five through seven. These kids are the next generation of techs for the high school. They spend their time backstage with the other interns, learning technical skills, and hanging out with others their age. One tech student, Jayce Pendergrass, a seventh grader, said of the experience, “It was really fun … I’d never done anything like it before, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna keep doing this’.”

Kara Steffans gives notes at the end of a rehearsal.
Photo by Kai Yamanishi

That fun and welcoming environment cited by so many as their reason for participating in Odyssey is no accident. Steffans, the director, said that when she first got into children’s theater she noticed that the directors treated the children like just that, children. She said, “It doesn’t matter if they[the actors]are kids or adults, it just has to be good.” She also said that she tries to work with the actors, discussing instead of commanding. This could clearly be seen while she was working with a group of over 30 children during one rehearsal. Whenever anyone seemed confused about a direction, she would take the time to explain what she thought would happen, then asked them what they thought about it.

Steffans said that she started the program because of a friend, Amy White. When White found out Steffans had directed at a children’s theater before, she insisted that Steffans run one in Lisbon. That first show had eight kids and was performed at the stage above the Lisbon Library where White works. Today, more than 20 years later, the average summer show brings in over 70 kids.

Another feature of the program that attracts many is that there is no audition process. Instead, Steffens said that she tries to match people to a role she thinks fits their personality. She said, “It’s a lot of watching their interactions with others… Seeing if they’re meek or bold… and sometimes just if they’re loud enough to be heard.” She said that she tries to push them to see the side of themselves that fits the role, even if they don’t at first.

With all these fantastic people behind it, it’s no wonder Odyssey has continued to thrive and grow for all these years.