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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Sandy, Danny, Rizzo and the gang turn 50, along with Normal’s high school summer theater

An outdoor theatre surrounded by green grass contains a set with a vintage-looking muscle car at center stage. Records and 50's styled posters are painted on the backdrop, and a person is seen making touch-ups to the paint.
Lauren Warnecke
A volunteer puts finishing touches on the set for "Grease," running through July 2 at the Connie Link Amphitheatre. The show marks the 50th anniversary of the Normal High School Summer Theatre program.

“Grease” is the word, or, at least, that’s the title of the Town of Normal’s High School Theatre Program this year, running weekends through July 2 at the Connie Link Amphitheatre. The program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, has been a theater home for hundreds of high schoolers and volunteers since its grassroots beginning in 1972.

“Neil Cobb was very interested in seeing a teenage musical theater opportunity,” said Beth Whisman, director of cultural arts for the Town of Normal. “There were things for young children. There were things for adults in our community, but teens didn’t really have a theatrical outlet.”

Cobb was a graduate of Illinois State University and taught at Normal Community High School from 1971-1980. He died in 2019. He gathered teen volunteers and others from the local theater community and approached town officials about starting a high school summer theater.

“They said, 'Look, we really want to do this, and the town should help us,'” said Whisman.

With a bit of financial support and a whole lot of volunteers, the program launched that summer of 1972 with two musicals: “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Music Man.”

“It was so successful. The program has never slowed down,” said Whisman, who also is director of the Children's Discovery Museum in Uptown. “It’s only continued to gain momentum over the years.”

Instrumental in making it happen is Becky Griffin, who directs the program and also has a long history with it, having participated as a high schooler.

“I was in the program before any of our children were actually born,” she said. That was 1994, before Griffin went on to a career in directing and stage management.

For a time, she lived and worked in New York City, "and then I came home, because it’s really expensive to live in New York,” Griffin said. That was 2008, the year the Connie Link Amphitheatre opened. The amphitheater now provides a permanent home for the High School Summer Theatre Program, but is not without complications — including this week’s high temperatures.

While not everyone will go on to a career in theater as Griffin has, she said the program plays a vital role for local youth, no matter what the future holds for them.

“Any participation in the arts makes you a more well-rounded person,” she said.

Key to this experience is the chance to work with kids from other schools with the summer program attracting youth from across central Illinois.

“People come in to do this because there isn’t another program like this,” Griffin said. “The first rehearsal, they all sit with the groups from their schools. Then I mix them up and make them do things together. By the end of the summer, I can’t tell you who’s at what school. So, they learn to work with people they don’t know. They learn to work outside the box.”

The choice to present “Grease” was both celebratory and strategic. The musical premiered in 1971 at Kingston Mines in Chicago — so it, too, is having a golden anniversary — and is universally loved by kids, their parents, alumni and audiences alike.

“People know this musical," said Whisman. "They know the music. They know the characters. It is this familiar thing that makes it easy to come together for a celebration like this."

“Grease” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through July 2 at the Connie Link Amphitheatre, with rain dates on June 19 and June 26. Each performance begins at 7 p.m. A 50th anniversary picnic will take place from 5-6:30 p.m. on June 25 at nearby Underwood Park.

For tickets, to R.S.V.P. for the picnic and for more information, visit normal.org/arts.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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