Cascades Academy senior Tia Wisco knew she wanted to act in theater from a young age.
“I was the toddler who was screaming Disney songs and dancing in princess dresses and I had like four costume changes a day. My poor, poor mom, but she put up with it!” she said, laughing.
Then she acted in a stage adaptation of the movie “Legally Blonde” when she was 14, and experienced how moving the arts could be.
“I met this one girl that had Down syndrome and she had Elle Woods gear all over and she told me that I made her movie come true and she said thank you,” she said. “And I think that was kind of the moment that I realized how big the performing arts can impact people.”
That’s why in 2022, she attended the first Stage the Change conference in the Pacific Northwest at the Tower Theatre in Bend.
For two days, students participated in dance, music and acting workshops centered around equity, inclusivity and finding their voices through the arts.
Broadway star Anthony Rapp and former Oregon Poet Laureate Elizabeth Woody served as keynote speakers.
“It was really cool just as a musical theater kid to see like a big Broadway star that everybody knows standing on the stage that I performed on several times,” Wisco said.
The conference returns April 21-23 and brings a slew of new guest speakers including Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez and the executive director of Caldera Arts Kimberly Howard Wade.
Students can register for the conference by April 14 and pay a registration fee of $20. The cost covers lodging and lunch vouchers for the entire conference.
Stage the Change originated out of New York as a one-day event for high school students, with the 2023 conference scheduled for November in New York.
Sharon Maier-Kennelly joined Tower Theatre in 2020 as its manager for corporate giving. When she heard of Stage the Change, she knew it had to come to Oregon.
“I think we become so polarized in our communities that sometimes we don’t remember that we’re all humans and we all need to find ways to connect with each other so we can be a kinder, more humane society together,” she said. “The arts can do that.”
Maier-Kennelly partnered with artists from around the Pacific Northwest like Seattle Children’s Theatre’s Johamy Morales, actor Marcus LeGrand and hip-hop musician Mic Crenshaw to curate a weekend of workshops for the students.
“The workshops are broken down into different themes like ‘Art and Racism,’ ‘Diversity, Equity and Art,’ ‘LGBTQ+ equality and innovation meets adversity for Pacific Northwest students,’” she said.
Last year’s Bend conference drew roughly 55 students from around the state and Washington. This year, she hopes more students apply.
Maier-Kennelly will once again partner with Pacific Northwest artists including Native American storyteller Brent Florendo and recording artist MOsley WOtta.
But the big draw for her is Gonzalez, the Broadway star, as a keynote speaker.
“She’s an incredible activist herself. She’s all about teen empowerment trying to encourage students to be themselves and be the best selves and, and be courageous as needed,” she said.
Wisco hopes that her fellow students come away from the conference with a renewed sense of purpose, but also not forget that the arts can be fun.
“If communities follow what Stage the Change is doing and are putting on these conferences and shows that start conversations and make people uncomfortable, make people question things, that’s how our world’s gonna start to change for the better.”