Josie Walker, center, with Merrimack Junior Theatre co-founders Anne Sullivan, right, and Corinne Gediman.The three of them are still together and have comprised the board for MJT for 20 years.

It's the lessons learned on the stage | with Merrimack Junior Theatre | that kids carry with them into the real world. Sometimes to Broadway, sometimes to a company boardroom.

"If you can sing in front of 500 people all by yourself, you can get up in front of 20 people and do a perfectly fine job," said MJT Artistic Director Josie Walker.

Walker, a music teacher at West Elementary School, has directed more than 40 productions with the Merrimack Junior Theatre since she and co-founders Corinne Gediman and Anne Sullivan started the group back in 1987.

Since then, hundreds of young people from Andover and surrounding communities have participated in the theater group, gaining valuable life experience in the process.

"It's not about the show. It's about the children," Walker said. "We really are driven by our goal, our reason of being, which is (teaching) life skills through theater arts. That's very important to us."

This weekend at Andover's Veterans Memorial Auditorium, next to Doherty Middle School and Town Offices, a young cast of seventh- through 10th-graders will perform "Once Upon a Mattress," a musical comedy based on the fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea."

The first of two plays this year, "Once Upon a Mattress" will kick off the 20th year of Merrimack Junior Theatre. Walker has been praised by two decades of young actors and their families for her commitment to the program.

"I think to keep at something like this for 20 years is really something," said Andover resident Nancy Vogler, a member of the MJT Action and Advisory Council. "It's made Andover a very strong theater town."

Vogler called Gediman and Sullivan, who run the business and administrative side of the nonprofit theater group, "unsung heroes" for their efforts with the junior theater. Neither has had children in the program for years, she said.

"They're really only doing it for the love of theater," said Vogler. "Merrimack Junior Theatre really gives kids a lot of confidence in themselves."

According to Walker, several MJT participants have gone on to perform on Broadway in New York. Current junior theater choreographer Amy Wilkins-Blanchette started out with the group when she was in just second grade, said Walker.

"Josie is someone who's gifted with children. She just intuitively knows how to deal with kids," Vogler said. "She really pays attention to every single one of these kids. The kids and the parents both adore her."

Walker said the theater program has benefited kids from outside of Andover, too. One young boy from Lawrence would take the bus to Walker's house every day just to make it to rehearsals.

When he was too old for the program, he rode on the bus with his younger brother each day just to make sure his kid brother participated, too.

"I asked him why he did it and he said, 'I don't want my brother on the streets. I know what this did for me,'" said Walker. "That's the kind of success that really thrills us."

If you go

What: "Once Upon a Mattress"

Where: Memorial Auditorium at Doherty Middle School

When: Friday, April 27, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 28, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, April 29, 2 p.m.

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