The Bell Tower Theater’s production of “Rent: School Edition” marks the 20th production of its Free Summer Musical Program geared toward youth. To help it come to life, three of its alumni returned to the place where it all began.
Jacob Melssen, Maddi Mulgrew and Evan Heil have spent time mentoring the young actors in the program, all the while continuing to grow in their own rights.
Melssen began at the Bell Tower Theater the summer before his sixth grade year. Sue Flogel, artistic associate and director of the theater’s youth productions, was his teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School. She recruited him.
“My first production at the Bell Tower was ‘Bugsy Malone Jr.,’” Melssen said. “Then, I did a bunch of summer productions with them and through school as well.”
He graduated from Millikin University in 2018, studying theater. He has since appeared in the national tour of “Legally Blonde.”
“A big thing the Bell Tower taught me was about collaboration,” Melssen said. “They taught me how to interact professionally.”
Transferring that experience to the next generation of performers is something he enjoys.
“Whenever Sue has asked me to come and observe rehearsals, I try to give them acting notes from the general knowledge that I’ve learned,” Melssen said. “Some are still starting out in theater, so I help them break out of their shell, especially with a show like ‘Rent,’ which is so edgy.”
Being back was like taking a walk down memory lane.
“It has always been my home,” Melssen said. “It was the first theater I started performing at in Dubuque. Being back there made me feel so comforted.”
Mulgrew’s first role was as Matilda in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” She was in second grade.
“I really had the freedom to be myself,” she said. “I had space to grow. I looked forward to being in another show because the community was so fun, professional and supportive.”
Mulgrew is a junior at Cornell College, studying theater and psychology. She aspires to be a theater teacher.
“I reached out to Sue because I heard they were doing ‘Rent,’ and I had just finished a production of ‘Rent’ at Cornell,” she said. “Having this opportunity was a great first step towards getting first-hand experience with what I want to do with my life.”
Heil has risen in the ranks at the Bell Tower Theater, filling roles, on stage and off.
“My very first production was ‘Honk! Jr.’ Heil said. “Now, I assistant direct, and I’ve done several shows with Sue.”
The Clarke University grad, who studied theater, continues to call Dubuque home.
“As a kid, I lived only a few blocks away, and I pretty much spent my summers here,” Heil said. “Finally, when I aged out, I came in my senior year of high school, and I just helped out with anything I could. The community, as a cast, was my favorite part. There would be the regulars and the new people coming in. By the end of each summer, we created a family.”
He hopes to encourage kids to pursue their passions.
“A lot of these things I learned in college, I use to try and help them understand, especially those who want to go into theater,” Heil said.
Flogel said their willingness to give back speaks louder than words.
“To have Jacob willing to come in and spend time with us is very humbling,” she said. “And when Maddi reached out, it was a neat surprise.”
Heil, however, has been “Mr. Everything” for the program.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people, but he’s just really special,” Flogel said. “The fact that they got their foundation here and found what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives makes me happy.”
“Rent: School Edition” will continue at 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday, June 15; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 16.