PLEASANT HILL -- The first time Braden Sweeney performed on stage at age 7, he knew musical theater would be his life's passion.

A year and a half ago, when Braden joined Diablo Theatre Company's Stars 2000, he said he found a place to further nurture his craft. For the teen company's upcoming production of "Hairspray," Braden has been co-choreographing the dance numbers and said he's happy to be involved with Stars 2000 in its 20th anniversary year.

"Stars 2000 allows teens and young adults to come together to put on a professional show," Braden said. "You could be 16 years old and play an old man but in a professional theater company, that's not possible. Stars 2000 provides a training ground for teens to work and learn what it takes to succeed in professional theater."

Looking back on 20 years since its inception, Diane Kamrin, Stars 2000 founder, said one of the greatest highlights of the teen company's history has been the number of students who have gone on to act on Broadway, perform in local theater, teach drama in schools and work backstage.

"Our goal is to get kids confident on stage or in whatever they end up doing in life professionally," said Kamrin, who approached the Diablo Light Opera Company's board about starting a youth theater program when fine arts programs were cut in local schools.

Kamrin said she's been so impressed with the caliber of the performances of the students as well as the set design work by former performer Mark Mendelson, who starred in his first Stars 2000 show 14 years ago and still does set design for the teen company.


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"The set design isn't cardboard cutouts," said Kamrin. "Kids rise to the occasion when they see the level of professionalism."

"I tell the kids, 'You have to be as shiny as the set,'" said Mendelson, now 26.

Stars 2000 has long been known to give young performers roles in well-known musicals they've produced because Kamrin said she's confident in their ability.

"There are kids who, when you see them perform at 12 years old, you know they're destined for greatness," she said.

Kamrin said the students' parents deserve credit as well for their kids' success.

"Family support is a make-it-or-break-it for these kids," she said.

"Can you believe I spent half of my life with Stars 2000?" Mendelson noted.

He first performed in "Into the Woods" at age 12 and starting designing sets for the group when he was 16 for a production of "Hello Dolly." As a teen, Mendelson said his knowledge of set design was self-taught.

Since then he concentrated on designing and attended California Institute of the Arts. He would still spend summers designing sets for Stars 2000 and said he enjoys "coming back home" to work on "Hairspray" for the company's 20th anniversary show.

"He's done some of the most remarkable sets for us," Kamrin said. "He's also a musician and a composer so he's probably singing songs in his head as he's designing the set."

"You get the best kids from a 40-to 50-mile radius. We do the best shows we can and strive for professionalism," said Mendelson, who will start teaching theater production at the Athenian School in Danville this fall.

Braden recently produced and performed in his own show, a benefit to raise funds and awareness about Invisible Children, a nonprofit organization that helps abused children in central Africa.

"As performers, our role is not only to entertain, but also to present (and) preserve these histories," Braden said about the theme of race in "Hairspray." "These stories shouldn't be forgotten. We can reach audiences with important messages to convey while we can personally reflect on how far we have to go."

If you go
Who: Diablo Theatre Company's Stars 2000
What: "Hairspray"
When: July 20-29
Where: Diablo Valley College Performing Arts Center, 321 Golf Club Road, Pleasant Hill
Information: Tickets call 925-324-7359