Several dozen teens come together to rehearse for a couple of hours each Thursday night, building their talents while also creating lasting friendships.
The group is called Creative Impressions, and it’s been a part of Augusta culture for 21 years, providing a place for young people to study musical theater, drama, dance and music history. It was founded by retired teacher — and now adopted mother to so many who have come through the program — Evelyn D. Ellis, who has handed over her trust to its current artistic director. Musician, composer, singer and teacher Trey McLaughlin has been at the helm since 2008.
“The mission statement of Creative Impressions is to ‘save just one,’” McLaughlin said on a recent Thursday, hours before rehearsal for the group’s big holiday show Behold the Star. “And I think that developed kind of after the group had already started, but Ms. Ellis wanted to give students an alternative outlet to, initially, it was to keep students out of trouble, because they’re gifted kids and they wanted to give them something to do that’s positive. I think over time, it’s developed not just to give them something to do, but also to kind of develop the musical gift and talent of its young people.
“It’s actually a help to the community to have your kids in Creative Impressions, because we’re teaching them how to read music. We’re teaching them drama skills; we’re teaching them dance technique. … It also teaches them life lessons about how hard work yields results.”
A 2002 graduate of John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, he got his start with Creative Impressions as a student when he was just 14 and stayed with it through high school. By the time he was a senior, he had become its student director and president. During his time in college, at Columbus State University, he would come back in the summers and again take over as the student director.
Once he graduated from college and came back to Augusta, Ellis told him she was going into seminary and asked him to take over as artistic director.
McLaughlin said being a part of the group is such a positive thing, for the students and for the adults involved. Creative Impressions allows students to take on leadership roles when they show they’re ready, and the kids in the group get to express themselves creatively in ways they might not be able to at school.
“I think for the kids that I teach, it is an opportunity for them to maybe see what they’re capable of, because the arts, as far as the trained arts, it’s kind of becoming a dying thing — like with YouTube and people being famous for sort of mediocre stuff,” he said. “I think it’s an opportunity for them to see what kind of greatness they have inside of them. And even if they don’t do music, I think there are life lessons that they’ll take with them when they leave.”
A student’s perspective
Kaylah Thurmond is one of the students McLaughlin gets wistful about when he sees how far she’s come. Now 16 and a junior at Davidson Fine Arts, she started with the group when she was just 11.
“I’m just stressing (about her graduating from the group), but just to have the opportunity to watch her go from this little great performer to this adult woman — not just a great performer, but like real adult, grown person and a young lady with a good head on her shoulders… That’s so gratifying to watch them grow and to know that in a way, I had a hand in helping along that development,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin picked her for the group when she was a year shy of what typically is the minimum age Creative Impressions will accept students. Thurmond says she has grown in ways she never imagined in the years she’s been with the group.
“When I first came into Creative Impressions, I was kind of shy and not very outgoing, because for one, I was the youngest member — everybody else was in high school or going into high school,” she said. “I was the only sixth-grader, and I was kind of shy and intimidated. But just being there, it helped me just to grow in leadership, because now now I am the section leader in the soprano section. And it just made me go for it. … Sometimes I would doubt myself and be like, ‘Oh, I can’t sing like they can, because they’re all good, and I’m just this little person.’ But, I don’t know, just one day I kind of grew out of that and just taking a leap and just doing what you want to do without any limitations on yourself.”
She and McLaughlin both expressed the gratitude they have for the creative outlets Creative Impressions offers students, who generally don’t have the same kind of freedom at school arts classes.
Creative Impressions doesn’t just keep their talents at home — they have traveled along the East Coast as far north as Ground Zero in New York City and have performed at a Presidential Youth Summit in Washington, D.C. But their biggest time to shine here in Augusta is with their Behold the Star show, held each December. This year, there are two opportunities to see the show, on Dec. 16 at Augusta University’s Maxwell Theatre.
“Behold the Star started in 2000; our first one was at Saint Paul’s downtown,” McLaughlin said. “It initially was just a concert where we would sing mostly choral repertoire, and we had a couple of dance presentations, but very concert-style formal. And it stayed that way for a few years until I came back as the drama king that I am and made it more into a production. … It’s now become a show, a full-out show, so we do some choral repertoire, but literally scene changes on and off stage, blackouts, costume changes, full dance numbers, everything. So it’s like a variety show of sorts.
“People will see us doing African songs, they will see us do African dance. They’ll see us do a little bit of hip-hop with some ballet mixed in. They’ll hear gospel. They’ll hear some jazz standards. We’ll be doing some stage choreography and movement and all that kind of stuff — it’s just gonna be a full-out kaleidoscope, is what we call it.”
As well as being a showcase for the kids, the show is the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
“Typically we use the funds to help with scholarships for kids that can’t pay the season dues because we do have some kids that are hardship cases, and they need a little bit of help,” McLaughlin said. “And then also for tour, and then whatever expenses we may have like sheet music. Sometimes I have to pay people to come in and work with the kids, so like we have choreographers who come in who are trained. … Supplies, dresses, costumes, all types of things that we may need.”
Creative Impressions is always seeking new talent and is especially in need of males to join. The nonprofit performance arts organization supports about 50 teenagers from diverse backgrounds, ranging in age from 12-18. However, the group sometimes does accept 11-year-olds. The group meets for rehearsal on Thursdays from 6-8 p.m. at Tabernacle Baptist Church’s Family Life Center in downtown Augusta at 1230 Laney Walker Blvd. Call 706-664-9022 or visit creative-impressions.org for more information.
Behold the Star
AU’s Maxwell Theatre
2 p.m. Dec. 16, $15 (matinee price)
7 p.m. Dec. 16, $20
(Cost is $10 for students, military, seniors and group discounts)