Jerry Awards program exemplifies Overture’s commitment to the next generation

Kate Janssen

“It has become the hallmark of the students’ year to have these music and theater opportunities and to gain such immeasurable skills as confidence and poise.”


Every February for the past 11 years, Northland Pines High School in Eagle River has presented a musical, directed by Kate Janssen, choral director. For the past five years, Janssen and her students have participated in Overture’s Jerry Awards program.

“I vividly remember stumbling across the Jerry Awards show on PBS years ago,” said Janssen. “As I viewed the show, I thought this was an amazing opportunity for those kids who have this available to them near Madison.”

Janssen wished her students from northern Wisconsin could have such a valuable program available to them, too. She reached out to Karra Beach, Overture’s Programming and Community Engagement Manager, and asked if Overture had considered expanding the program into the north. Beach arranged for reviewers to attend Northland Pines’ show in 2016. Needless to say, Janssen was thrilled to learn the wheels were already in motion to expand the program, and the next year, Overture partnered with The Grand Theater in Wausau, welcoming all the northern schools into the Jerry Awards program.

“Participating in the Jerry Awards provides numerous benefits,” said Janssen. “It brings an awareness and adds legitimacy to our program so the school, parents and entire community know we’re keeping up with musical theater standards. It holds us accountable to offering students the best experience possible. And it allows students the opportunity to see talented actors and singers across the state, giving them something to strive for outside of our small community.”

As the adage goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. Directing a musical in addition to her teaching duties doesn’t always allow for Janssen to give ample thought to the technical elements of the show. Since joining the program, the Jerry reviewers have given her many useful ideas, which helps her improve the show each year.

“The Jerry Awards program is important because it inspires thousands of students, teachers and community members across the state,” said Janssen. “It has become the hallmark of the students’ year to have these music and theater opportunities and to gain such immeasurable skills as confidence and poise. It connects us with professionals around the state and helps raise the quality of our musical theater programs.”

Having reviewers at the show causes much excitement among the students and receiving feedback from people who know what they’re talking about creates legitimacy for the school’s theater program.

“When the reviews come in each year, we gather and read every word together, and we do the same when the awards are announced,” said Janssen. “It’s a special time, a highlight of our year.”

Northland Pines has also had four students participate in the Jerry Ensemble.

“In a place where we lack a university and theater resources, it’s incredible for these students to have these experiences,” said Janssen.

This summer’s annual Jerry Awards Show took place virtually, but in June 2019, Northland Pines musical theater students performed a song from ‘Newsies’ in Overture Hall for Outstanding Musical Performance.

“I tear up when I think about the experience,” said Janssen. “We took a busload of kids to Madison and stayed overnight in a hotel. It was an impactful experience for every kid involved in our program, and it’s a memory none of us will ever forget.”

According to Janssen, the recognition provided by the Jerry Awards really enhances the students’ high school experience, deeming what they’re doing as worthy and important throughout the state. Plus, she finds the professional development opportunities valuable.

“Last year, I attended a directors conference at Overture Center,” said Janssen. “It was an incredible professional development experience, and it exceeded my expectations. The level of talent, quality of information and networking opportunities were a pleasant surprise. I plan to return and bring more people to the next conference!”

Janssen recognizes that Overture Center could focus on wealthy patrons and filling seats, but instead they are supporting the next generation of performers and theater appreciators.

“As a teacher, I’m constantly reminded how much Overture Center cares about students,” said Janssen. “It’s unique how committed they are to students and teachers. The opportunities provided by Overture for high schoolers at this level is amazing.”

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