Seymour teenager Sarah Johnston is spending her summer vacation chasing a dream.
The 14-year old South Carolina native–she moved from the Palmetto State to the Smoky Mountains with her parents, Tommy and Deborah Johnston, a couple years ago–has landed a starring role in director Wally Calderon's teen musical "Rock 'n Roll Rewind" at The Grand Majestic Theater.
Johnston was the lone Seymour High School student who auditioned for the show when Calderon conducted a whirlwind talent search at area high schools in hopes of discovering performers to fill out the cast, made up of 19 local teenagers.
Along with Seymour High School's Johnston, Calderon said the "Rock 'n Roll Rewind" cast also features students from Pigeon Forge High School, Sevier County High School, Gatlinburg-Pittman High School and Jefferson County High School.
Calderon, a Green Bay, Wisconsin native relocated to Sevier County via New York City to perform in "It's Swing time", the 1940s-themed musical currently running at the Grand Majestic Theater. He says Johnston shines on the stage.
"Sarah is very talented," Calderon remarked Friday, minutes before rehearsal for "Rock 'n roll Rewind”, which will be performed this weekend only with shows Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m..
"She is a trained singer and a very good dancer," he added. "Most of her experience is with singing but she's been moving really fast to get up to speed. She's working hard and doing a good job."
The sophomore-to-be Johnston, who said she plans to attend Sevier County High School in the fall, said she's having the time of her life this summer performing with her cast mates
"I love this so much," she exclaimed. "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be a performer. Hopefully I can use this experience to help me get roles at other theaters in Pigeon Forge.
"I love all of my cast mates," Johnston continued. "We have so much fun together. When I first started, I was close to just one other person here. But now, basically all of my best friends are in the cast."
The confident teenager can thank her director for getting the wheels in motion for such a project, aimed entirely toward youths who seek hands-on training in theater and performance arts.
Calderon has a degree in musical theater performance and direction from Northern Ohio University. He spent time in New York City and Boston post-graduation earning his chops under the lights as both a performer and a director.
After high school graduation, Calderon surprised people in his hometown when he gave up a promising baseball career in favor of a future in the theater. He said pursuing a career in the theater is almost unheard of in Green Bay, a town, not unlike the Knoxville-area, with so much emphasis is placed on athletics. Calderon said there just were not a lot of options for young people with interest in the performing arts in his hometown.
After arriving in East Tennessee, Calderon quickly recognized the similarity between this area and the place where he grew up. Besides an unbridled love for the game of football, both East Tennessee and Green Bay, Wisconsin, lack proper educational entities and opportunities for young people with an interest in the performing arts.
He said upon arrival in Pigeon Forge he discovered that, despite the large number of theaters and entertainment venues in the area, there was a need for resources that cater to the performance artists of tomorrow.
Calderon said he discussed the matter with members of the administration at The Grand Majestic Theater and proposed taking on the role of director of "Rock n' Roll Rewind" on top of his full-time job as a cast member of "Its Swing Time" as a way to gauge the interest of young people in the area.
"I went to all the high schools in the area to try and drum up interest," said Calderon. "I'm new to the area but I noticed there was no theater geared toward young people in the area. I talked to the drama teachers at the high schools and there seemed to be interest in it.
"That's when we started to get things rolling. We held auditions in May and we started rehearsing in June," Calderon added.
Calderon said eventually he hopes to help usher in a project that would be aimed toward an education-outreach program where kids would be able to study performing arts and the theater year-around.