Jeri Johnston

Each November at Lake Highlands United Methodist Church, teen hopefuls pick up pages of script, called “sides,” to recite at their audition for the youth group’s Broadway-style musical. Some kids are hoping for a spot in the chorus. Others long to sing a solo in a starring role.

It’s been 47 years since church member Jeri Johnston founded Artists of Christian Talent (ACT) and staged the inaugural musical Godspell for youth in grades 7-12. Alums of the program have gone on to direct movies, dance on Broadway, sing on cruise ships, make commercials and become featured performers all over the country. Creating stars, though, was never Johnston’s goal.

“These kids gain more confidence than people who’ve never been on stage. The skills they learn performing in ACT make them great doctors or lawyers or whatever they want to be. They get so much poise from being on the stage. They learn to speak in front of a crowd without having to pretend everyone’s naked. They learn to move fluidly, and they gain the confidence of learning what they can do.”

Johnston wanted to create a venue for students who couldn’t quite earn a spot in Lake Highlands High School productions, so she declared there’d be a place in ACT’s cast or crew for every child who wanted one. That’s still the case – almost 3,000 students later.

“Everyone deserves a venue,” Johnston says. “Everyone should be highlighted for the skills they have and made to know that they are special. Putting on the show is hard, but it’s important to tell kids how wonderful they’ve been and what a good job they’ve done. ACT does that, and the community does that. It’s important for them to know they can do anything they aspire to.”

LHUMC doesn’t restrict participation to members only – students from the entire community are invited to accept roles as stagehands, lighting techs, makeup artists, singers and actors. Church leaders come to rehearsals to pray over student efforts and ensure them sanctuary doors are open to all.

“It’s a huge outreach ministry by the church, and it brings in kids from all over the neighborhood,” says Johnston. “The ministers share devotionals, and the kids respond to them. My biggest surprise has been the sense of community kids get from ACT. When they write their salutations in the Playbill-style program as seniors, they invariably say they’ve made great friends, and that touches my heart. It’s a God thing.”

Johnston recalls performing in her own high school musicals, later majoring in speech and theater at Texas Wesleyan University and taking a role in most every production. She inherited her strong voice from her father, a Methodist minister who played the trombone. He, too, had a magnetic quality and a flair for the dramatic, and the pews in his church stayed full when he was in the pulpit. She admits to being a little jealous at the technological advantages today’s young thespians enjoy.

“When we were auditioning, we’d have to run out and buy the record, but when we announce our show, these kids get on the internet and learn the songs in just days.”

Johnston credits parents and volunteers who work behind the scenes, costuming the kids and preparing them for their roles in the full-scale production. Their transformations wouldn’t be life-changing if they were merely “putting on skits” or “playing dress-up.” For five nights over two weekends, the youth face audiences of more than 200 who’ve paid $10 each for their seat.

“I think ACT gives kids wings. It allows them to stand up and say, ‘I did it.’ Each of these kids is special, and ACT helps them find that nugget of true talent.”

After ACT performances, cast and crew members come into the church’s great hall to sign autographs and mingle with the audience. Children line up to have photos made with favorite characters.

“I just thank God because what he’s done through ACT is amazing. During the pandemic, the kids were chanting ‘Save ACT, save ACT.’ It’s important to them. It’s blessed their lives, their relationships and their confidence. It’s given them happy memories and shown them what they can do. I have no doubt that God has kept it going.”

Guys and Dolls 1982

Bye Bye Birdie 1979

47 years of ACT:

  • 2022 The Music Man
  • 2021 ACT Radio Hour
  • 2020 Annie
  • 2019 Bye Bye Birdie
  • 2018 Beauty and the Beast
  • 2017 Fiddler on the Roof
  • 2016 Bells are Ringing
  • 2015 High School Musical
  • 2014 Guys and Dolls
  • 2013 Footloose
  • 2012 Crazy for You
  • 2011 Breaking Up is Hard to Do
  • 2010 Seussical the Musical
  • 2009 The Pajama Game
  • 2008 Bye Bye Birdie
  • 2007 Thoroughly Modern Millie
  • 2006 Anything Goes
  • 2005 Li’l Abner
  • 2004 Babes in Arms
  • 2003 State Fair
  • 2002 Guys and Dolls
  • 2001 Oklahoma!
  • 2000 The Music Man
  • 1999 Crazy for You
  • 1998 Annie Get Your Gun
  • 1997 Into the Woods
  • 1996 Fiddler on the Roof
  • 1995 Godspell
  • 1994 Oliver!
  • 1993 Me and My Girl
  • 1992 The Wizard of Oz
  • 1991 Annie
  • 1990 George M!
  • 1989 Bye Bye Birdie
  • 1988 Once Upon a Mattress
  • 1987 Anything Goes
  • 1986 Oklahoma!
  • 1985 Little Mary Sunshine
  • 1984 The Boy Friend
  • 1983 Li’l Abner
  • 1982 Guys and Dolls
  • 1981 Hello, Dolly!
  • 1980 The Music Man
  • 1979 Bye Bye Birdie
  • 1978 You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
  • 1977 Jesus is Coming
  • 1976 Godspell