New Club Provides Theater Education at Schools

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A local community theater has launched a drama club for students of three high schools – including two that do not have theater programs.

Top Hat Productions has started the Tri-City Drama Club for students in Campbell and Struthers high schools, neither of which offers theater, and also Lowellville high school.

The club offers theater education at no cost to the students or the school districts and does not use any school facility.

Tri-City’s first production will be the comedy “The Play That Goes Wrong,” which will be performed Feb. 23-24 and March 1-2 at Fairview Arts and Outreach Center, 4220 Youngstown Poland Road. Fairview – the home of Top Hat Productions – is a 140-seat theater with full sound and lighting.

Tri-City was launched by Valerie Dill and Mia DiRienzo Olson, who are volunteering their time as co-directors of the play.

The two approached administrators of the high schools in October with their plan. Information sessions were then scheduled for interested students and their parents.

At least 20 students auditioned for the cast, which requires 12 actors, or sought to be part of the production crew. Two of the students were from Lowellville, with the rest split between Struthers and Campbell.

Rehearsals, which take place after school, began Dec. 13.


The two co-directors were pleasantly surprised by the turnout.

“I wasn’t sure if we would get a lot of interest,” Dill says. “But there was definitely an enthusiasm. There is a need for this type of performing arts programming [in these schools].”

Valerie Dill

To gauge their expectations of the drama club, the students were asked to fill out questionnaires at the first meeting. Their answers were encouraging to the directors.

Carley Johnston, a senior from Struthers High, wrote “[I hope to] have the Drama Club experience I never got to have.”

Natalia Gonzalez, a senior at Impact Academy in Campbell, wrote “[I hope] to work on public speaking and stage work and to meet and make new friends.”

Dill believes a theater program is important to a young person’s development.

“Even if [students] do not stay with the performing arts, at least they’ll have had exposure to it, and find an appreciation for it,” she says. “It’s not just putting up a show. It’s learning how to collaborate, to work in teams, and it builds creativity and hones public speaking skills. It’s another component of education and experience.”

Dill, of Poland, is a member of the Top Hat board of directors. A graduate of Campbell Memorial High, where she was active in theater, she is also a former member of the Montessori School of the Mahoning Valley board of directors, and directed school plays there. Dill is also a former board member of Ballet Western Reserve.

The idea to launch the new theater group started to take shape among the Top Hat board in the waning days of the pandemic as venues were starting to reopen.

The goal, says Dill, is to provide performing arts opportunities for children that do not have it in their schools. In addition to learning acting skills, the students will be mentored in technical positions such as sound and lighting, and also marketing, concessions and ticket sales.

Dill will oversee the technical and operations aspects, while DiRienzo Olson will handle the artistic side.


DiRienzo Olson, a former teacher and drama department director at Lowellville High School, is pleased with the play selection for the inaugural production. “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a British farce that recently became available for amateur theater.

Mia DiRienzo Olson

“I am a Monty Python kid, so British farce is my favorite genre and my favorite to direct,” DiRienzo Olson says. “It’s funny, silly and goofy. And with teenagers, farce works well. They get to be a more exaggerated version, and that makes it fun for them.”

Putting on a play, she says, is a valuable experience for everyone involved.

“My favorite part is when the show ends, and [the students] are sad because they don’t want it to end, but they are happy because they belonged to something bigger than themselves,” she says.

Brian Nichols, assistant principal of Struthers High School, says the theater program was in the early phases of being restarted when the Covid pandemic hit, and the momentum fizzled out.

Fortunately, Tri-City Drama Club came along.

“If we have an opportunity to showcase [our students’] talent, we will provide that opportunity,” Nichols says. He cited Top Hat’s well-equipped facility and the experience of its staff.

Struthers already has a host of extracurricular activities, including band, show choir, language clubs, book club, robotics, esports and athletics. Adding another can be challenging, Nichols says.

 “We can only do so much,” he says. “This situation presented itself and we said ‘sure.’ We couldn’t provide the opportunity, so we followed their lead.”