Since coming to the Sacramento Theatre Company, education director Michele Hillen has continually pushed its youth programs forward.
She has 73 students in STC's Young Professionals Conservatory, and nearly 350 students during the year are involved in three levels of youth training the theater offers: the conservatory program, summer camp and a pre-professional ensemble.
Hillen has directed and choreographed numerous works for young people, but on Saturday her first adult production, "Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks," opens in STC's Pollock Stage.
Hillen came to Sacramento in 2005 with husband Martin Noufer, and a year later she was directing and choreographing a production for the Young Professionals Conservatory. At STC, she first appeared in "The Taming of the Shrew" in 2006, then a series of plays on STC's Mainstage in the 2006-07 season "A Christmas Carol," "Private Lives" and "Othello" and ended up becoming a company member that year.
When her twin daughters Millie and Maya were born in 2007, the opportunity to work with the YPC seemed right to Hillen.
"I've always performed, but when I moved here and the teaching opportunity opened up and I started doing it, I realized I was happiest when I was involved with all of it," Hillen said.
She studied theater and music at Oakland University in Michigan before moving to New York, where she met her husband in an acting class. Though Noufer now works as a finance manager for Intel, the pair have occasionally performed together here, including recent productions of "Wait Until Dark" and Neil Simon's "Chapter Two."
Hillen has divided YPC into three ongoing weekly classes for seventh- and eighth-graders, ninth- and 10th-graders, and 11th- and 12th-graders.
"The curriculum is progressive so they are not getting the same thing every year," Hillen said.
The program is also producing "Romeo and Juliet" with the students at California Middle School; it will play at the end of January.
The YPC curriculum includes auditioning skills, theater history, voice and speech, design, theater etiquette and even Pilates.
"I didn't have this kind of program when I was in high school. I just learned everything as I went," Hillen said.
Some students get the experience of participating in STC productions, so the program emphasizes professional behavior.
"It's the recognition that they're not just learning acting and singing and dancing skills. We're teaching them life skills, like how to deal with rejection," Hillen said.
"My philosophy is not to tear them down but to respect their artistic selves. Even at this age, they have impulses and instincts, and (we have) to honor those."
There is also personal and artistic growth. Abbey Williams Campbell, a 16-year-old junior at St. Francis High School, has been in the Young Professionals Conservatory five years.
"When I started I was one of the little kids, and I'd look up at the other kids who were going off to college and I'd think, 'Wow, I don't think I'm ever going to be that old or that good,' " Campbell said.
She now teaches dance classes for the conservatory early Saturday mornings before taking acting classes later in the day. As she looks at competitive college theater programs, Campbell says, she feels she has solid opportunities.
"On top of everything else, I've attained a sense of professionalism," Campbell said. "I understand how important it is to compose yourself with the utmost kindness and poise toward everyone you work with. You're going to work with these people more than once, so you might as well build a strong relationship."
The YPC has helped students to university theater programs, including Alec Forrest Brown at Santa Clara University, Paige Silvester at University of Michigan, Anna Miles at Northwestern University, Alexander Dominitz at Yale University, and Royal Academy of Music graduate Maggie Elizabeth May.
While managing the very active conservatory, Hillen has jumped into directing "Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks" with the support of STC producing director Michael Laun. He suggested Hillen direct the piece after she told him how enthusiastic she was about it.
"It's been a challenge for her to multitask because she has so much stuff to do, but I think when you go with the passion, you're halfway there," Laun said.
Laun is appreciative of Hillen as a professional partner, and the two are essentially STC's day-to-day leadership.
"We have a good team right now, and it hasn't always been that way at the theater," Laun said.
"Everyone's really putting the needs of the theater first," Hillen added. "We have a common goal to produce successful theater that's going to reach out to the community."