The walls of the Winston Middle School cafeteria may not be covered with flavored wallpaper, but that hasn’t stopped a group of children and teens from bringing to life the magical and whacky world of Willy Wonka.

On a recent morning, participants in the upcoming Riverbend Live! Youth Theater production of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” began the day’s rehearsal with movement and speech exercises, warming up for Oompa Loompa training, candy factory exploration and some “Pure Imagination.”

“I like that Willy Wonka is sarcastic but also funny, and he tries to make people comfortable but uncomfortable at the same time,” said Kyra Lee, the 17-year-old Douglas High student cast as the show’s eccentric candy manufacturer.

Kyra has been participating in the annual Youth Theater productions for 10 years now, and said she enjoys being able to incorporate music into her summer break.

The program, in its 20th year as part of Riverbend Live!, is geared toward Winston-Dillard School District and area home-school students.

Director Ian Hutchins, 20, who has been involved in the program since he was 7 years old, was excited to take on the main directing position for the first time this year.

“It’s such a fun project, and I want it to be their project and not just mine,” he said of the youth participants.

Hutchins is putting on the show along with music director Ryan Norman, choreographer Eliza Garcia and assistant director Erika Pennington. It will be performed July 27 and 28 at Riverbend Park in Winston.

Hutchins said, with few theater opportunities in the Winston area, he’s been grateful for the summer musical, supported by many community members and sponsors.

“It’s phenomenal. I’m so appreciative of what it does for our community,” he said. “It’s really impressive that there’s such a love for the arts and for kids to experience the arts.”

He enjoys working with the students and hopes that the values they learn throughout the production, such as respect and discipline, translate to their daily lives.

Riverbend Live! co-founder Mo Nichols said one of the goals of the production is for students to learn life skills, as well as theater skills. Along with providing a safe and nurturing environment, the program is free for students to participate in and provides them with breakfast, lunch and snacks.

It’s something the entire community rallies around, she said.

“It’s a highlight of the summer for a lot of the kids,” she said, adding that Riverbend Live! funders, the school district and parents also look forward to the production each year.

Kambree Lee, Kyra’s 12-year-old sister, is playing the part of Charlie Bucket, the wide-eyed youngster among those touring the chocolate factory.

Kambree, who has also participated in Youth Theater for several years, enjoys watching her peers team up for the production.

“I like how you can meet a bunch of new friends and everyone has their own character, and they’re not afraid to be themselves here,” she said.

For more information about the Riverbend Live! Youth Theater, visit

Chelsea Duncan is a communications specialist with the Douglas Education Service District.

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