When Bob Silton started the Encore Theatre group in the backyard of his parents' house "with cardboard boxes and shower curtains," he had no idea that it would grow into the program it is today.
"I think it all started as something to do way back when," said Silton. "Now it has grown in so many different ways."
Encore Theatre is getting ready to start its 15th season. Six shows are planned—starting with "The Sound of Music" in October—and a couple more could be added.
"It's kind of weird and kind of crazy because I don't feel like it's been 15 years," said Silton, the artistic director for the company. "The best part is the families that have basically become part of my family, and seeing the the kids grow."
He recently attended the wedding of one of his former students.
"Working with the kids is awesome," said Silton.
The Encore Theatre group is geared toward children in first through eighth grades. Silton said the company draws children from as far north as Zion to as far south as Buffalo Grove, Bannockburn and Skokie, which he said is great, "especially for a company that doesn't do any advertising."
Silton has a varied theater background, having produced artists around the world and worked with regional theater companies.
"I've done it all, I guess, on-stage and off," he said.
When he first decided to form the Encore Theatre, the intention was to just do summer shows. Now, it's a year-round program that's "not like any children's theater you'll see." There are full sets and elaborate costumes—some of which Encore Theatre now rents out to other theater companies.
Encore Theatre tends to take on large-scale productions. While there are junior versions of major musicals available for children's theater groups, that's not what you'll see at Encore, Silton said.
"The shows are all big this year. We're doing 'White Christmas' and 'Les Miserables,'" said Silton. "They're full-blown productions."
The children are true professionals, Silton said. Many have lots of experience in a variety of theater opportunities and come in with full resumés.
This season's opener, "The Sound of Music," has a cast of 42. Working with so many children, Silton said, definitely takes patience.
"But also, there's got to be a mutual respect between the two," he said. "There's a lot of give and take."
The children put in hours of work—both in rehearsals and at home memorizing lines—for each production. Silton also takes them on field trips to Chicago to see plays, and he loves listening to the children dissect the productions and compare them to Encore's work.
In June, Encore took a group of 40 children and parents to New York to experience the Broadway theater scene. They saw four shows—"Newsies," "Peter and the Starcatcher," "Evita" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
"There's nothing more magical than being in a Broadway house," said Silton.
It's a magic that is brought to audiences each year by the Encore Theatre actors. The company's motto is "Making Magic Happen."
"It's always interesting starting a new season. It's fun and fresh," said Silton. Each season, the company aims to do a crowd-pleaser and some sort of "oddball, to test the waters," he said.
"We mainly choose shows that are going to challenge us," said Silton. The summer 2012 production "The Wiz," for example, "was not an easy show to conceptualize." And "Thoroughly Modern Millie" ended with all of the children in tap shoes even though most had never tapped before.
Silton never ceases to be impressed by his young actors.
"I love each and every one of those kids."